Sun Country Earns the Cranky Jackass Award for Giving No Options to Stranded Customers

Cranky Jackass, Sun Country

When it comes to major weather problems, I’m a pretty forgiving person. Weather wreaks havoc on an airline, and recovery can be really difficult. But even if it takes a week, it’s still important for an airline to make sure it completes its recovery by getting everyone where they need to be. Sun Country failed that test this weekend when it stranded scores of passengers in Mexico. I hoped the airline would change its mind, and I reached out for comment today thinking maybe it would have. But even in the face of widespread (well-deserved) criticism, Sun Country has stuck to its guns. And for that it gets the Cranky Jackass award.

Let me set the scene here a bit. A bunch of pale Minnesotans hopped on an airplane to fly down to Cabo and Mazatlán to catch some sun. Spring break is over, and Sun Country is getting ready to pack it in for this year’s season before moving airplanes to different markets. But in the dying days of winter, there are still Minnesotans looking to escape.

While they’re there, Mother Nature gets involved. She says, “You think winter’s over? HELL NO. I hope you like Dairy Queen, because it’s BLIZZARD TIME!” And Minneapolis/St Paul (MSP), home of Sun Country, gets absolutely walloped with a late season storm. I’ll let Sun Country’s VP of Marketing Kelsey Dodson-Smith tell you just how bad it got for the airline.

MSP was closed to all arrivals and departures for a total of 9 hours on Saturday causing us to cancel 25 flights, combined with other carriers, the cancellation count came to 495. Network disruptions continued into Sunday due to weather challenges and runway closures at the airport. We had to cancel 15 of our flights, 315 flights were cancelled in total.

We understand that it has been difficult to call through to our reservations call center based on the significant increase of call volume and recognize the hold times are unacceptable. Our staff continues to work around the clock to reduce the call volume and assist every passenger affected by the extreme weather. We continue to staff to the fullest in an effort to decrease the wait time and assist our passengers as soon as possible. Some of our agents have literally worked from one day, through the night, and into the next to help passengers and to cover for colleagues who were unable themselves to get to work due to the storm.

Long hold times, canceled flights, rolling delays. I get it. It’s really uncomfortable, and people will have their plans disrupted, but that’s just life when weather hits the one hub of a small airline, especially a newly-minted ultra low cost carrier. There isn’t the same capacity to recover as there is with the bigger guys. None of that is Jackass-worthy, but wait, there’s more. Remember those people in Mexico? They were supposed to come home during the blizzard, but instead, flights were canceled and their options were… well… I’ll let Kelsey describe it from here.

Our most challenging recovery situation remains to be our Los Cabos and Mazatlán flights and we cannot apologize enough to those passengers who were hit by the one-two punch of an April snow storm and the seasonality end date of our winter schedule. Our fleet was already allocated to fly other operations and unfortunately, we were unable to send additional aircraft to Los Cabos and Mazatlán without cancelling more flights causing further disruptions to more of our passengers. We felt the best option for these passengers was to provide them a full refund on their airfare so they could get on their way as quickly as possible. If their tickets were booked directly with us, the refund is being automatically credited back to their account. If passengers booked through a travel agency or online travel provider, we are working with those partners to assist with those refunds. Sun Country may take up to 7 days to process the refund. Dependent on the passenger’s bank it may take longer for the refund to be reflected in the passenger’s account. We have expedited processing these refunds ahead of all others.

That’s right. Sun Country has its fleet flying hard, and it doesn’t have the slack to send a rescue mission down to pick up those people who are stuck. So what did it do? It just punted. That is not a solution. People who likely got a bargain flying at the end of the season were now told to go buy a ticket on another airline out of pocket. You can be sure they had to pay a whole lot more than they did in the first place. Of course, a refund should be an option for people who need to get home. But Sun Country should provide more options for those where cost is a greater concern.

I sent follow up questions asking if the airline had thought about other options, but I didn’t receive a response before publishing. Here are just a few of the things Sun Country could have done.

  1. Find some spare aircraft time and send a rescue mission. I know, Sun Country says it has no spare aircraft time. But guess what? You can cancel one of the three daily flights to Vegas and reaccommodate those passengers so you can send a plane to rescue the Mexican tourists. There has to be some way to make this work.
  2. Charter a plane. This isn’t cheap, but it’s an option. If the airline wanted to prove it was the ULCC with a heart, then this would have given good press for miles.
  3. Put people on other airlines. It’s true, the big guys don’t have interline agreements with Sun Country, so the airline would have to just pay for tickets out of pocket on most. But Sun Country does have an interline agreement with Alaska, and Alaska flies to both of those places. This seems like a cheap solution for Sun Country, especially in Cabo where Alaska has a lot of flights back to the US (if not Minneapolis) and a lot of seats available to sell in the next few days. Mazatlán is tougher since Alaska has much less service, but it’s still an option that could be offered to some people. But Sun Country could have just bought the tickets outright. Maybe, what, $150,000 total to do that? It’s worth it.
    Update 4/18: Sun Country has emailed me to tell me that it no longer has an interline agreement with Alaska. Sabre, however, continues to show it as being active. Alaska has confirmed it is still in force through April 30.

I don’t know why Sun Country has decided that the “best option” was to give no option. But you would think the airline would be more sensitive to its public persona right now as it morphs from a well-liked hometown carrier with a Minnesota attitude into an ultra low cost carrier. That move made sense to me, but part of the pitch was that the airline was going to keep that “Minnesota nice” attitude. This says very loudly, very publicly, otherwise.

UPDATE: On April 17, at 1:27pm CT, CEO Jude Bricker sent this note to employees with more detail. The airline has decided to reimburse the costs of travel for the people stuck in Mexico.

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38 comments on “Sun Country Earns the Cranky Jackass Award for Giving No Options to Stranded Customers

  1. I don’t mean to defend Sun Country’s actions, but this is why the gods gave us travel insurance. When people fly UPC (ultra peasant class) civility isn’t guaranteed. That being said, I hope Sun Country learns from this that the cost of litigation and loss of good will is tremendously higher than honoring its moral obligations.

    1. I’m a big supporter of the idea of people buying trip insurance, but “Ha! Sucks to be you! We’ll get you your refund eventually! Good luck scraping up the cash to buy walk-up one-ways on an airline that doesn’t suck!” seems to be a bit below the minimum we expect from even the lousiest airlines.

      Even if I wouldn’t necessarily expect a ULCC to pay a walk-up on another airline or a charter, issuing a refund equal to a walk-up on their own airline, in cash, at the airport, wouldn’t have been out-of-line.

      1. I think you really hit the root of this issue when you say it “…seems to be a bit below the minimum we expect…”

        There appears to exist a substantial gap between the expectations which are generally held by the traveling public, and the express terms in the contract of carriage. Which should prevail? Ultimately, that’s a business decision. The airline can “stick to its guns” as it did here and deal with whatever publicity fallout that naturally comes with that, or it can voluntarily go above and beyond what it is legally required to do.

        As for all the clamor about the putative poor, Mexican-vacationing souls who cannot afford to get back stateside, it’s an unconvincing argument. The airline is not responsible for the financial health/wisdom of its passengers beyond said passengers’ ability to pay their fare. If a pax decides to reduce their liquid assets to near zero (or perhaps into the red) in the furtherance of a leisure trip, that’s not the airline’s problem. Moreover it’s doubtful that any such pax wouldn’t have a credit card with a line of credit sufficient to pick up an overpriced ticket home. That failing, we’re down to lessons learned the hard way.

    2. Shana, they bought their tickets. They knew what they were getting into. I say, let ’em crash!

  2. Tonight forwarded “Cranky” comments to friends in MN and elsewhere.  Rather doubt they’ll be flying SUN COUNTRY, nor likely folks in Pacific Northwest “Land of Escaped Minnesotans”.  Just a thought: Anyone need ‘repo’ aircraft from yet another failing ‘El Cheapo’ low-cost HA HA HA airline?   Norman L. Wherrett, Jr.aka Kindred Spirit

  3. Somehow I bet Congress has something to say about service recovery after IROPs as a result of this incident. Other countries already have much tougher IROP requirements for their airlines while US airlines can clearly do pretty much what they want. Sad thing is that nearly every other airline even without regulations would have come up w/ some solution better than what was offered here and yet the industry could well be hit with another rule because of Sun Country’s tone-deaf incompetence.

  4. Just like the tarmac-delay fiasco, it’s boneheaded foot-shooting f-ups like this that inspire regulators and Congress to write some inflexible rules that the airlines will like even less than the bad publicity. I can’t believe Sun Country is unaware that customer that are flying a ULCC might not be able to buy walk-up tickets on, say, Delta, if they have to wait a week for even the refund of their Sun Country ticket. Some folks just won’t have the cash. (And will now be reduced to trying and find ways of calling home to beg for money from friends and family; not everybody has cell phone service abroad.)

    I could totally imagine a rule that if any but the outbound leg of a reservation is canceled for any reason, the offered refund should be equal to whatever the fare for the canceled leg(s) would have been at the time of the cancellation, and that refund needs to be available in cash at the airport. A last-minute Sun Country fare still might not pay for a last-minute on Delta, but it’s still a better choice than giving them the $80 or whatever they paid six months ago.

    (Really, I wouldn’t cry big crocodile tears if there were a similar rule for any cancellations… Maybe a requirement for refunds at the walk-up rate if the airline can’t get you to where you wanted to go within 24 hours.)

  5. While I don’t necessarily disagree with the travel insurance point in another comment, I have to say this is quite possibly the crappiest thing I’ve seen an airline do. And it’s just the kind of bone-headed move that invites media and Congressional scrutiny.

  6. Wow. It’s been a while since Brett has given out one of these awards, lest he tarnish its impact, but this definitely seems well-deserved. I’m guessing the Ops and/or Finance people made the decision without consulting the PR & Marketing folks, as even chartering a few planes would have been cheap compared to the PR disaster that is unfolding.

    Also, I doubt a “full refund” of the airfare would cover more than a day or two in a resort hotel, let alone a last-minute one-way flight. Absolutely shameful.

  7. MSP is my home airport and thankfully I wasn’t flying over the weekend but I knew many that were. SY does offer some real bargain deals at the end of season so I’m sure those flights were bargain basement. I’ve been tempted by them before but the Boy Scout in me never pulled the trigger. Always be prepared for the unexpected and while DL might be $50-100 more per segment down to Mexico it’s well worth it when things like this happen. My spouse hasn’t always agreed with me but we’ve traveled the globe and never been stranded.

    Right now SY is taking a beating in the local media. The interline with AS hasn’t come up that I’ve seen but that one is my biggest head scratcher. I’m sure any of those stranded passengers would’ve loved to at least get a lift to LAX or SEA where there are many more options back to MSP. I also call BS on no other options – like a charter or canceling a half full flight to DFW. At least the media is getting it straight. They are not a “hometown” airline – they are owned by a NYC private equity group that only cares about making money and the customers are just cattle to fill up their ULCC aircraft. Sorry, my local loyalty is with Delta.

  8. Yet another reason why I hate Ultra Low Cost Carriers.

    Say what you want about United, I doubt the “Friendly Skies” would leave hundreds of passengers stranded and to their own volition to find a trip home from a foreign country. Ditto for Delta, American and Southwest.

    When low costs become THE reason for existence, a company begins to lose sense of its moral and ethical responsibilities to its customers and, yes, it’s guests. They see us passengers as cash flow and not as people. They protect assets (are you listening, Allegiant?) rather than people. For Sun Country, ti was simply easier and more efficient to say, “You are on your own buddies,” than it was to work with Alaska and other carriers to get people home.

    In a “race to the bottom,” I think we are getting close to finding how far down the bottom really is!

  9. And that’s why you don’t fly ULCC. Airlines as a whole don’t care about customers. Even more so with ULCC.

    1. Two points:

      First, you are right that the ULCCs are worse than the legacy airlines. As I point out, United probably would not leave me hanging in a foreign country with no way out. In fact, I know they wouldn’t because they have worked their backsides off in the past to get me home under difficult circumstances. There is one circumstance a number of years ago where United worked so hard to get me home from near what seemed to be the end of the earth that they earned my unending loyalty.

      Second, I would agree that the legacy airlines probably care minimally about many of their customers. Dr. Dao could affirm that categorically. But, for a “regular” on a legacy carrier who is a premium member of their Miles and More, Mileage Plus, AAdvantage or Skymiles, I guarantee they care! They really do. In some cases, it may be physically impossible for an airline to get you home when you want to get home, but I know of no reputable, legacy carrier that would leave you stranded high and dry in a foreign country with no way out, regardless of fare paid. They won’t pay for a hotel if it is what happened in MSP (weather delay), but if it is mechanical, they will.

      In the end, you get what you pay for. You spend nothing and, as Sun Country shows, you get NOTHING! The extra dollars that American, Delta, Southwest and United may charge is worth its weight in gold when something goes wrong. Networks, interlining and customer commitment comes at a price.

  10. Geesh it even sounds like if they wanted to be ultra cheap is interline them on Alaska to LA and charter busses to Vegas and then fly them home from there good grief

  11. The problem with your good press point in comment #2 is that it wouldn’t really have given any good press if they hadn’t made this mess first. If they had just done it, it wouldn’t have even made news in aviation circles. I guess maybe if they made this mess first and then planned a charter flight, maybe that would help, but I’m not sure there was any way for them to be received as a hero here.

    I guess you can debate the value of avoiding this current bad press, though. Maybe they think it sends a message about how they are tough on costs to keep fares low, kind of like Spirit’s longtime messaging.

    1. I agree on the first point. Chartering a plane wouldn’t have made Sun Country a hero, but would have largely prevented a mess and PR fiasco, and oftentimes cost avoidance (and risk avoidance) is the best strategy.

      How much is it worth to an airline to avoid having a Senator (that represents the state where its hub is, mind you) asking the DOT to investigate them? How much advertising would they have to do to counter all the news stories and articles in the MSP and national press?

      The cost of chartering a plane or two (which Sun Country could have done for less than the price of a few primetime TV commercials or full page ad in major newspaper or two) pales in comparison, Now that the bad press is forcing Sun Country to backpedal and throw a few bones to the pax it stranded, the point is even more clear.

      1. Wow, that letter that they put out yesterday (which is a good letter, and makes me feel some sympathy to the airline) should have gone out way sooner. “With hindsight, we should have flown a rescue flight to MZT as service options are limited.” Umm, yes. A one-way to MSP is pricing at $888 today. If I were to book a throw-away return in November, it still is almost $500. I’m glad they’ve finally decided to cover any travel costs for people to get home.

  12. Are not these airlines responsible for having some type of contingency insurance of their own? Saying you have no aircraft, not enough people, no interline agreements, etc., etc., ridiculous! Either you show proof of adequate insurance to handle any and all contingencies or you don’t get authority to operate. How do airlines get away with this? The burden should not be on customers to cover what should be the airline’s responsibility!

  13. Interesting tidbit: Robert Daly used to own Sun Country. Robert Daly now is the CEO of CalJet Air LLC, the company that flies people between Carlsbad CA and Las Vegas… sometimes.

    In Feb they cancelled all flights for 2 weeks, stranding people in Vegas.

    And they’re in the midst of doing it again. See what angry travelers have to say, here:

    Can we give a Cranky Jackass to CalJet too?

    1. Wait a sec. How was Caljet able to come into Carlsbad so quickly and easily while California Pacific was stalled for years till it died? I always suspected there was a political vendetta behind that whole debacle. Can you or anyone else shed some light on this?

      1. CalJet contracted with an existing airline, Eilte Airways, to operate their flights. California Pacific was trying to start up a new airline from scratch, but they’ve finally given up on that idea and recently purchased Aerodynamics (ADI), which operates as “Great Lakes Jet Express” as well as makes aircraft available for charter.

      2. Cal Jet may be toast. They’ve only completed one round-trip over the past week. Many people are cranky about that & the past cancellation debacles, and how Cal Jet has been slow to give refunds, has provided people with useless future-travel vouchers, and has pretended like there were never any problems.

        While Cal Jet has the slogan “Avoid I-5 Traffic,” it should really be “And Say Hello To I-15 Traffic,” as many of us North County people found ourselves doing a last-minute (and cranky) drive to Vegas when Cal Jet / Elite decided to use their plane for other things. At least they gave me a refund when they cancelled my flight in Oct and I didn’t get stranded in Vegas like many others.

        A local rumor — which I can’t say has been confirmed and won’t believe it until it actually and finally happens — is that California Pacific is going to start up in the next couple weeks. This rumor comes from an investor, one who seems intent on letting people know also that California Pacific is by no means related to Cal Jet / Elite.

  14. I disagree. They are transparent about what they provide, as is the administration (no Citizen protections — they’ve done squat since making involuntary incarceration by airlines illegal). The Jackass Award should go to the people who were stupid enough to give Sun Country their money. And to the U.S. government to allow its Citizens to be pillared by corporations.

  15. Sun Country used to be a carrier with heart and hone town interest. I remember them sending a charter plane FREE to those stranded by Hurricane Wilma. They even brought back passengers from other airlines. Those were the days!

  16. If I were one of the big 4 (especially Delta in this case), I grab a couple spare 757s and run a couple of free relief flights. Total cost probably around $100k, but the return in terms of publicity and goodwill would have been massive

    1. Delta wouldn’t want to do anything to help an annoyance of a competitor in MSP, but for American or United I strongly agree.

      1. I’m not sure it would be helping a competitor in MSP so much as giving them a PR black eye and making them look bad. Would depend on how the legacy airline pitched the story, of course, but it would be a great way for Delta to build goodwill at the expense of Sun Country if they went that route.

    2. Great point. If another airline could have organized it in time, running a few planes (with lots of free food and booze) and inviting a few journalists along (either on the plane themselves or else as part of a big media event when the planes arrived in MSP) would have been a great PR coup, and would have really helped to differentiate them against the ULCCs.

      Imagine the soundbites from pax: “When Sun Country left us stranded in Mexico without a way out, [other airline] brought us home, free of charge. Thanks, [other airline]!”

  17. According to published schedules for Sunday April 15, there were 45 flights from SJD to the US with over 7000 seats but only 3 flights from Mazatlán.
    There were more than enough seats at least from SJD to accommodate all of the passengers and even at Mazatlán, there is daily air service.

    There was no need for extra flights… all that was needed is a policy that requires carriers to either provide their own service or provide carriage on another airline at the price the customer paid, esp. if the customer is not at the origin point of their trip.

  18. I see in the news that Sun Country has changed their mind on paying stranded passengers expenses due to bad press received.

  19. Where were the planes during the storm? Airlines often move their planes away from an airport in anticipation of bad weather, both to avoid damage to the planes and to make recovery faster. If the planes were waiting out the storm in Phoenix or Vegas (as they should’ve been), then they should’ve been able to bring the passengers back to the U.S., at least.

  20. Sun Country, unfortunately hasn’t learned despite various ownerships throughout the years’. In 2000 Northwestern University had Chartered Sun Country for the Alamo Bowl and the equipment was a DC10.

    The return flight from SAT to ORD was originally delayed due to mechanical. The DC10 never made it from MSP to SAT. Sun Country then cancelled the full charter flight and advised people they needed to find another alternative. Now this was a Charter Flight for NU Season Ticket-Holders, so everything was already paid for to the Travel Agent (Remember them?) via NU.

    Apparently lots of heat came down due to the lack of initial common sense for that version of Sun Country too, by powers that be and after about a 10 to 12 hour delay Sun Country mysteriously located another DC10 (Imagine that). However, several fans had connections out of ORD and when Sun Country canceled and said find another alternative, some fans booked on other flights. Those people were reimbursed by the Travel Agency and/or NU.

    NOTE: I did have travel insurance back then and it was strongly suggested by my father.

    It was New Year’s Eve too!

    I understand stuff occurs as my father was a commercial pilot for 40 years, however Sun Country won my Jackass of the year award then.

    Never had problems with ATA Charters.

  21. My take is that this falls squarely under caveat emptor. The aggrieved knowingly 1) purchased a ticket on what must be the tiniest ULCC in the US, 2) did so at the end of a season route, and 3) declined the $25 travel insurance which is prominently offered on the checkout page. They gambled and lost, and did so knowingly.

    I used to fly G4 quite a bit. In so doing, I was making a decision that price was the important factor above all else, and that if anything goes sideways, the best case scenario is the next G4 flight is several days away. In the case of G4’s seasonal routes or the many routes that they just suddenly cut altogether, I know I’d simply be up the creek (though I’d get my $50 fare refunded).

    Is it a crappy situation to be in? Sure. Could SY have handled it better? You bet. But under the terms to which SY and the respective pax agreed at the time the contract was formed, it was pretty clear that SY would be well within its rights to terminate the deal due to a major snowstorm, and its only obligation would be to refund the money for services not rendered. Being a pax in this situation, I would certainly hope that SY would show more heart and do something to get me home, but I would also understand that they do not obligated to do so. I would further understand that my dirt cheap ticket would not have been so cheap if airlines were to become forced to provide travel insurance (be it self insured or otherwise).

    Lots of people are using this to clamor for regulations similar to EU 261. The big airlines would love this as it won’t hit them hard due to the scale advantages that they have, and it would absolutely crush small LCC’s like SY, which has already collapsed multiple times in its existence without the burden of such regulation. I’d be curious to see how many similar standalone ULCC’s with a fleet of 23 aircraft (not including seasonal leases) are operating over in the EU. By “standalone,” I mean the airline is truly its own individual entity, without the support of a government or a large parent airline. My guess is zero.

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