Sun Country executives (and its fun new ownership group) must've hoped to wake up Monday and learn their customer service and public relations disaster was just a nightmare.
In fact, it's real, and news that the Minnesota-headquartered company left two groups of paying customers stranded in Mexico only spread further and wider Monday. The Washington Post, USA Today, Reuters, Newsweek, CBS News, the Chicago Tribune, TIME Magazine, and the Daily Mail picked up the story, among others. The only thing a corporate CEO fears more than this much bad press is getting called to testify in Congress.
That might be next. DFL U.S. Sen. Tina Smith authored a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation, expressing her "serious concerns" about Sun Country's decision to strand "approximately 250 travelers" in the Mexican resort towns of Mazatlan and San Jose del Cabo.
Sun Country informed customers their return flights to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport were not only canceled due to our epic April snowstorm, but had been the airline's last scheduled flights from those locations this season. These passengers would be refunded the price of their Sun Country tickets, but as Smith observes, finding one's own way back on such short notice could wind up costing more than the refund:
"Some travelers account having to fly into neighboring airports in Chicago and then driving the remaining distance due to costly airline tickets and additional delays along the return route, costing one family nearly $2,000 to return home. Other travelers had to book last-minute one-way tickets onalternative airlines, which cost travelers $600-$900 each and without guarantee of a direct route to MSP [Airport]."
Smith also faults Sun Country for travelers' inability to wring information out of the airline. Its desks in those Mexican airports were reportedly closed, and calls to the general service line could result in waits of 24 hours (!) or more before reaching someone on the phone.
Smith notes that in one of its first moves after being purchased by Apollo Global Management, a Wall Street private equity fund, the airline laid off 350-some service employees, whose jobs were then outsourced to a Canadian management firm. (The employees were eligible to reapply for their positions, though for lower pay and less generous benefits.)
"As many travelers are already financially squeezed by the airline industry," Smith continues, "it is troublesome tosee a domestic carrier abandoning its passengers in a foreign country, forcing them to find their ownway home and to incur further expense of time and money. This failure to act by Sun Country sets anegative precedent for other airlines to follow."
If nothing else, it might encourage some frequent fliers to read the fine print before clicking the "purchase" button. As noticed by Minnesota Public Radio, Sun Country informs its customers on the first page of its contract: "Purchase of a ticket does not guarantee transportation." The inclusion of that unambiguous statement likely protects the company from civil lawsuit liability, no matter how upset people are by their situation.
Sun Country might be on firm ground legally, but the company still seems rightfully concerned about losing in the court of public opinion. On Monday evening, Sun Country issued a second statement about the situation, including updated figures for flight cancelations into or out of Minneapolis-St. Paul.
In total, Sun Country postponed (or nixed altogether!) 25 of its flights on Saturday, while all MSP Airport carriers combined canceled 495 arrivals and departures. The following day brought another 315 canceled flights, 15 of them Sun Country's.
The statement reiterates Sun Country's defense of customer service employees, some of whom "literally worked from one day, through the night, and into the next" in order to cover for coworkers who couldn't make it to work because of the blizzard.
The new company line also includes a more thorough attempt at contrition. Whereas the previous statement apologized to "everyone inconvenienced by the sever weather," this one seems a little more willing to accept some responsibility.
"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.
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."
Customers who purchased through Sun Country should see their refunds automatically. Those who booked through a travel agency or online third-party site might have to wait a week or more to see a refund, though Sun Country says it's working with banks to expedite getting customers' money back into their accounts as fast as possible.
"Again," the statement closes, "we sincerely apologize to our passengers who have been affected by the storm then delayed in reaching their destinations."