This Is Low: Sun Country Stranded Hundreds Of People In Mexico

Filed Under: Other Airlines

In the past, Sun Country was known as a full service airline with a loyal following in Minneapolis. While they were an airline that many people loved, the problem is that they couldn’t really get much of a revenue premium for their service. As even full service airlines have moved towards an ultra low cost carrier model by introducing basic economy, Sun Country was left in a tough position.

The airline was recently sold, and as part of that, the airline announced that they’d transform into an ultra low cost carrier, largely eliminating the things that they were loved for. Obviously they’re getting bad press for these changes, though that’s not the only way in which they’re getting bad press at the moment.

Sun Country played really dirty with flight cancellations in Mexico this past weekend, which stranded hundreds of people. Technically they didn’t violate any laws with what they did, though to me this highlights why we need more government imposed rules when it comes to how airlines have to take care of passengers when things go wrong, as they have in Europe.

On Saturday, Sun Country canceled their flights from both Los Cabos and Mazatlan to Minneapolis. The cancelations as such were fair enough, since they was due to snow in Minneapolis, which caused the outbound flights to be canceled.

In this case there was another issue, though — these are both seasonal routes, and yesterday was the last day that either of these flights were supposed to operate.

It’s not Sun Country’s fault that the weather was bad, though it’s how they responded that’s unacceptable. The airline is saying they do not have another flight to reaccommodate passengers on, and that flights will need to be purchased on another carrier, and that they apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.

The Star Tribune quotes Sun Country’s VP of Marketing, saying that the airline couldn’t send another plane to pick up stranded passengers, and acknowleding that customers can’t even get through to the airline on the phone:

“As disruptive as the current situation is for the affected passengers, the alternative — canceling other flights to other destinations — would have been more disruptive to even more passengers,” she said in an e-mail.

Sun Country’s telephone reservations line disconnected callers or said lines were jammed and directed them to “please call back later.” No one was staffing Sun Country’s airport counters, passengers reported from Los Cabos, Phoenix, Tampa and other locations.

Dodson-Smith acknowledged that Sun Country’s call center is “still struggling to keep up with the call volume so it can be hard to get through.”

The airline is offering to refund only the return portion of the fare, and says that they hope that the fare refund “will more than compensate for the cost of making alternative arrangements home.”

Really? They think that a one-way refund for a ticket purchased on Sun Country in advance will be more than the cost of purchasing a one-way last minute ticket out of Mexico? Are they crazy? From doing a quick search, it appears as if the cheapest one-way ticket today from Los Cabos to Minneapolis is ~$550.

Again, I can appreciate Sun Country’s struggle here. They have a small fleet and they were impacted by weather. However, this highlights a couple of important points:

  • This is one of the risks of booking a smaller carrier, and especially an ultra low cost carrier; Sun Country doesn’t have any useful interline agreements, so in other situations the airline would rebook you on another airline, while Sun Country is telling customers to pound sand, and doesn’t have any room in its fleet to operate an extra flight
  • This also highlights how the government really needs stricter laws when it comes to consumer rights in the airline industry; if I need to cancel a ticket 25 hours after I book, I’m potentially hit with a change fee of hundreds of dollars, while if the airline cancels a flight hours before we’re supposed to fly, they can just refund us and call it a day, without offering any compensation

The right thing for Sun Country to do here would have been either to charter a plane to get passengers home, or to offer to refund people the fare they pay on the airline they book. But unfortunately with their new ultra low cost carrier business model, I suspect customer service is taking a hit as well.

While Sun Country isn’t doing anything illegal here, they’re taking the very low road for customer service, and deserve the bad press they’re getting.

(Tip of the hat to Jon, featured image courtesy of Cory W. Watts)

  1. Didn’t know Sun Country was still around.

    But it’s not the government’s job to regulate businesses so they can’t screw their costumers.
    We alli know that businesses self-regulate and always take the right action even if it costs them more :)).

  2. @KJ – Wow. It absolutely is the governments job. That’s why we have labor laws, anti-trust regulation, FMLA not to mention consumer protection laws.

    You’re absolutely correct about self-regulation and the lack of which only highlights the need more so.

  3. I heard Allegiant was going to send a plane to pick them up…but they had mechanical issues.

  4. Sun Country doesn’t have may spare planes, but I do agree that the honorable thing would have to either charter a plane to pick-up stranded passengers or negotiate with other airlines for some kind of highly discounted emergency rate. Then again, Sun Country’s Revenue Management team seems to have been in a state of coma for years now… they probably wouldn’t even know how to read other airlines’ fare structures.

  5. I’m in Los Cabos now and although it was hard to get through on the phone lines, once I made it they did agree to put me on the next Sun Country flight out, which is on June 29. Now I have 6 weeks to work on my tan and my Spanish! Yay!

  6. What’s the big deal? Didn’t you read that they are going to refund travelers for the return portion of their ticket and that will “more than compensate” them for the cost of an alternative flight home? They are coming out ahead.

  7. No the market will handle it. The pax knew the risks of booking a cheap ticket on a small carrier. News will spread that they screwed their customers and that will drive down sales. Do that enough and they go out of business. More government regulations would just mean no more sun country and allegiants of the world at least no low fares as compliance costs would be too high. You would regulate them out of business exactly like Dodd Frank regulated small banks into oblivion and froze credit markets for small businesses. Besides trip interruption insurance is what $20? If you’re flying ulcc better buy it. Why should we all pay because a few people didn’t buy $20 insurance? That’s the cost of a drink or two.

  8. Well, at least if the official delay reason is “weather,” this would trigger coverage under credit card policies (that otherwise exclude mechanical or other carrier-controlled problems).

  9. Would this be covered by the travel insurance on cards like CSR or AmEx Plat? Or not because it’s weather-related?

  10. I think it’s a reasonable expectation they would arrange for passengers to have a way home. Trip insurance is for unexpected things on a passenger’s end, not compensating for an airline’s garbage operation.

    As for ‘the market will handle it’ , they’re trading off of the reputation of the industry and expectation for the industry norm- thereby they’re giving the whole airline industry a black eye. Sun Country should buck up and cover the ticket costs for passengers to get home. It’s the same as the pet food companies that had poison in their food or those scammy small banks (the ones that -didn’t- fail from 2008) were trading off of the trust of consumers prior to Dodd-Frank.

    They should also fire their CEO, who is D-grade talent at best.

  11. Great example of why we DON’T need more regulation. This is all over the internet right now, stupid move that will cost them business. We need honest enforcement of contracts.

  12. Bad situation, but I don’t know that regulation is the answer. Could end up regulating some of these small ulcc’s out of existence. Sure, elitists who are flushed with cash and claim to know what is best for the rest of us may view that as a win, but it reduces options and competition for the great unwashed.

    Bottom line: the pax and the airline entered into a contract, voluntarily. Said contract contains a force majeure clause, to which both parties agreed. So how is this now Sun Country’s problem?

    Also let’s not forget that those coming out of pocket to get home opted not to pick up the $25 travel insurance as they were buying their ticket. Why? Because they made an informed decision that they were unlikely to “win” that bet. They ended up being wrong. Sh!t happens. That doesn’t mean we need the government to come in and save us from ourselves.

  13. Yeah, no, regulation is bad and it’ll end up closing all ulcc’s. As it happens in Europe, where there’s no such thing as an ultra low cost carrier, right?

    Americans are so afraid of things that are common sense around the world, like government regulations, public healthcare, minimun wage and gun laws, that let this kind of thing happen and buy all the wall street bs of ‘the market will regulate that’.

    Newsflash: it wont, unless it hurts shareholders. If it just screws clients, than it’s good news for the ‘market’.

  14. On social media Sun Country was telling people “If you choose to take another flight we will refund the cost of the unused ticket,” as though some might “choose” to chuck it all and stay in Mexico forever.

    I read through some of the social media stuff just to wallow in others’ misery, I suppose – some of their social media posts were also in rather garbled/broken English.

    They kept saying some variation of “It is in our best interest to provide you good service, but we can’t.”

    Apparently many people got an email that allegedly said Sun Country would be calling affected passengers, but when asked about the calls Sun Country said their system cannot place outgoing calls.

    Also they announced (right in the midst of all this) at some point that the customer service/reservations line was closed for the evening and to call back at 6am.

    What an absolute mess…

  15. I’m hoping these comments about not needing regulation for passenger protections are sarcastic/made in jest. After all, the EU has no shortage of ULCCs despite the existence of EU261. If it’s possible for airlines like Ryanair and EasyJet to thrive despite having to pay out cash to passengers when they cancel flights AND still get them to their final destination without the passenger paying any more out of pocket, then why is there worry that these poor American ULCCs will get regulated out of the market? Or are we just trying to help them at their customers’ expense because they offer such a terrible product that they can’t compete otherwise?

  16. It’s not about more regulation or less regulation, it’s about the right regulations. The right regulations are about protecting all people, both customers and business owners. In this case, airlines are immune from liability due to regulations benefiting their industry over the traveling public.

    If the airlines were not protected by regulation, they could potentially be held liable for compensatory damages possibly including lost wages, additional hotel costs, last-minute flights and more depending on the judgement of a particular court. They also would potentially be liable for punitive damages if the court found they were out of line with long-held standard industry expectations such as interlining. Good regulations can create a framework of predictability that protect both the airlines and the traveling public.

    That all being said, here in Seattle last year when there was a tragic Amtrak accident between Seattle and Portland, Alaska Airlines and Delta responded by cutting their listed fares between Seattle and Portland in half. Good people and their companies can find a way to make the best decisions in unusual and otherwise unfortunate situations. Good government, such as the regulations in the E.U. provide the same.

  17. In the long run chartering an aircraft from another carrier will be cheaper
    The refundable value of the unused tickets is likely to be far lower than the cost of new ones
    If they had agreements with other airlines they could reroute them, however if they don’t the option would be to refund the cost of new tickets
    Even if it’s weather, they still have a responsibility
    Had they been booked on delta American united etc they would have been rebooked
    Even In Europe Ryanair is a LCC and have no interline agreements but they have agreements with other airlines including easy jet as it’s a legal obligation.

  18. @Jim, Insurance provided by the CSR or Citi Prestige does cover cancellations due to weather (which applies here). The Amex Plat however, does not provide similar coverage.

  19. Customer service needs to be more than buzzwords. Seriously, if they can’t take care of their customers, where else are they skimping? Cheap plane parts and minimum plane maintenance perhaps? I’d avoid them.

  20. They should change their name to “Sun Country Forever.” Or maybe “Hotel California.”

    Once you arrive, you can never leave.

  21. What a splendid collection of comments. I really enjoyed the thoughtful debate on the need for additional governmental regulations. How refreshing to read divergent opinions that don’t devolve into petty nastiness.

  22. I was waiting for the “well the EU has ulcc’s and they haven’t been regulated out of business!!!” argument.

    To that I ask you this: how many among them are structured like Sun Country? I am talking about an airline with a small fleet of 27 planes, and is a standalone operation (not owned by a larger airline company or a government)?

    Two folks cited Ryanair and Easyjet. Those have fleets of roughly 400 and 200, respectively. Not at all comparable. Do I hear Vueling? That’s a 107-strong fleet with the full backing of IAG.

    Try again. Ill wait.

  23. @Wes – That Ryanair and Easyjet exist despite EU regulation is proof that the regulations do not kill ULCCs.

    Your argument that similar regulations might kill Sun Country just assumes that an airline with their business model should be allowed to exist. If it’s true that providing reasonable consumer protections would kill Sun Country, then I’d say that your assumption is questionable at best.

  24. …in the “You are what you eat” era … “You get what you book”…

    if I go downtown and book a ticket on MegaBus vs a chartered bus… I should know what to expect… and if my bus breaks down half-way there or doesn’t show up to pick me up – why am I surprised?

    I’ve been flying the big carriers for 18 yrs now – all in all have been fairly compensated for “disruptions” (and in some cases one could argue over-compensated).

    Its as simple as that – regulated or not!

  25. @Wes
    So what you’re saying is that their business model is unsustainable if they are forced to provide reasonable protections for their passengers instead of leaving them stranded indefinitely when weather or other operational challenges pop up? If that’s the case, why defend them? They can either shape up their act, or go out of business. I see no reason to give the consumer the shaft just to protect a small airline that can’t guarantee passengers it will get them to their destination.

  26. As a former airline employee of 3 different carriers that had more than 27 planes, I was often asked by friends or customers to “fix” a problem for them. My first question was always, how did you book the ticket? To a person, they all said, Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, etc etc. And my response was “I can’t help you”. And I couldn’t. And I know how often I have broken the rules to help people out, but I really couldn’t. These people that called me did not know that by buying their “cheaper” ticket through a third party operator, they gave up some of the ease and luxury of getting help that they could have gotten by buying directly from the airline. Their priority was cost. And when cost is a priority, many other relevant or potentially relevant situations are ignored. My point is that the general public all are experts in what they are experts in. I would venture to say that the majority of Americans or people of the world, are not experts in travel. In the nuances of travel. In the minutae of travel, the rules when things go wrong, insurance, and credit card travel benefits.
    So I would also venture to say, and I apologize if I offend some people, that people who book Sun Country do not travel alot, and are most interested in saving money and are all experts in something else. The fact of the matter is that Sun Country (and I have no idea if they have solved their problem to the satisfaction of their customers yet) made a business decision to not disrupt their next flight operation(s) and they probably calculated the cost of that decision, at least to some extent. And the future operation of a flight won, vs. the past.
    We all need to be aware of the consequences of our decisions and have a plan B and C when plan A goes wrong. I would also venture to say that most of the passengers on this Sun Country flight did not have a plan B and C. It is a terrible situation to be put in, but I can guarantee you that this is a lesson that will never be forgotten.

  27. Delta should swoop in and fly everyone home to MSP for free. It would be worth it in free PR against their local competitor.

  28. @KJ

    “it’s not the government’s job to regulate businesses so they can’t screw their costumers.”

    I may have missed a nuance here, but having re-read the article, I’m pretty sure there’s no concern about the airline screwing the people who supply their costumes (costumers). I think it’s about passengers (customers).

  29. The point of EU261 is not to give European travelers all kinds of “freebies” like €600 and hotel nights and meals, but to nudge carriers to choose to *do their job* instead of providing this compensation. In a European situation, I suspect Sun Country would have quickly found planes to send to Mexico after the weather cleared, even if it meant paying pilots double or triple or quadruple their normal salary to make the trips.

  30. A quote in the Minneapolis newspaper from Brian Davis, senior VP of Sun Country
    “Davis said he wasn’t sure if Sun Country called other airlines or charter companies to see if they could make arrangements for passengers left in Mexico.”
    In other words, they had no procedures in place for this type of situation which is unbelievable since they do not have ONE extra plane.

  31. They’ve since agreed to pay everyone’s cost to get home. So in the end they end up paying AND getting all the bad publicity.

    If the airline had a plan beforehand they would have come out of this looking great. As it is it the perception is they don’t give a damn about their customers but only reacted in the wake of bad press and even then because there was no planning people were left stranded unnecessarily for days.

    If management had thought ahead they could have used the situation to show that when things do wrong an ULCC can be as good or even better at handling the situation than an airline that charges way more because in the end the SC still had to pay to get everyone home.

    A real lost opportunity.

  32. @Wes

    Fleet size of small independent European U/LLC
    WOW AIR: 19
    Volotea: 28
    Germania: 25
    Blue Air: 28

    This leaves aside small government owned airlines, independent regional carriers, charter operators and finally specialist scheduled long haul airlines flying mostly to various French islands all the size of Sun Country or in most cases smaller.

    The European market is more than Ryanair and Easyjet, or Norwegian or Wizz Air, or even small with just 72 planes, the truth is that Europe is full of small airlines the size of Sun Country or even smaller.

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