Hundreds of stranded Sun Country Airlines passengers fumed after the carrier canceled their flights home from Mexico and then told them they’re on their own to find a new way back.
The unusual situation unfolded after a potent late-season blizzard forced airlines to cancel hundreds of flights at Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport this weekend.
Among those weather-related cancellations were two Minneapolis-bound Sun Country flights that had been scheduled to depart the Mexican resort cities of Cabo San Lucas and Mazatlán. But the big problem for customers was that the flights were the last on the schedule for Sun County’s wintertime-only service from those destinations.
Once the flights were canceled, Sun Country decided it could not spare additional aircraft to fly and retrieve the stranded passengers there. That, the company said, would force it to cancel other flights where those aircraft were scheduled to be deployed next.
“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,” Kelsey Dodson-Smith, vice president of marketing for Sun Country, said in an e-mail to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, one of the first outlets to pick up the story.
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But customers say it was Sun Country’s next move that really put them in a bind. The airline refunded the stranded fliers for their flights -- and then told them that they were on their own to book a new flight home.
"These were our last flights for the season, so we do not have another flight to re-accommodate passengers on,” Sun Country said in a message to customers, according to an account shared by a passenger to KARE 11 TV of the Twin Cities. “You will receive a full refund. Flights will need to be purchased on another carrier.’
Abby Pettit, of Detroit Lakes, Minn., relayed a similar story to CBS affiliate WCCO of the Twin Cities.
"The fact that they felt it was OK to send an email telling everybody that 'find your own way home,' I guess to me that doesn't seem right," Pettit said to WCCO from Cabo San Lucas, adding that she eventually found tickets on another carrier for her family.
"Now to get the four of us home costs us more than our round-trip tickets to get down here," Pettit said.
Ann Berglund of Woodbury, Minn., was one of Sun Country’s customers stranded in Mazatlán. She told KARE 11 she’s called Sun Country’s reservation number over and over again but has not been able to get through.
"We are their customers, we are their responsibility to get out of a foreign country ... . Bottom line, even if the season is over, they have a responsibility to us, we paid them, we trusted them and they just abandoned us. That is ridiculous," Berglund said to KARE 11 on Sunday.
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Sara Chancellor of Brooklyn Park, Minn., added to KARE 11 that it cost her $4,000 to book a last-minute itinerary on other carriers to get her party of four home from Mazatlán.
Sun Country is a small Minnesota-based carrier that’s been slowly shifting from a traditional low-cost carrier into more of a budget outfit.
Robert Mann, an aviation consultant and former airline executive, told Star-Tribune reporter Kristen Leigh Painter it’s not unusual for a small airline like Sun Country to run a tight schedule.
“They typically schedule to the maximum availability of aircraft and crew resources, with no spares or slack for irregular operations,” he said.
By offering refunds for canceled flights, Sun Country fulfilled its legal requirement to customers.
But, Mann said those refunds might end up being akin to “down payment” in trying to secure last-minute tickets, which typically come with sky-high prices.
Travel agent Emily Kladivo of Emily’s Travel Service told the Star-Tribune she's been working to get some of her Sun Country customers out of Mexico. One family paid about half the cost of their entire vacation just for their new trip home.
Kladivo told the newspaper it's the first time she's encountered anything like this with an airline, and she thinks Sun Country should be doing more.
“Weather is out of their control; how they’re handling the situation is IN their control,” she said. “Send a plane, go get your passengers.”