Sun Country’s Lost Weekend
A few weeks ago we flew my son home from college for a two-day spring break. He was flying from LAX, where he had landed on American Airlines at 9:30 p.m. after spending most of his break with his girlfriend’s family in Hawaii. College is tough, I’m reminded.
When you get into LAX at that hour, the only way to get to MSP is on a redeye. He had the choice of Sun Country at 11:30 p.m. or Delta after midnight. SY (as it’s known in aviation parlance) was cheaper than DL and uses the same terminal as American. I bought a ticket, paid for a checked bag and an assigned seat. (I declined to buy space in the overhead bin, now part of SY’s new ala carte pricing. Anecdotal reports indicate the bins are quite empty now that they come with a fee greater than a checked bag.)
I suggested to the kid that he check his bag through to MSP from Maui, so he didn’t have to collect it from American, walk to Sun Country, re-check the bag, and then clear TSA again. But in Maui, not only did the AA agent refuse to check his bag to Sun Country, she had never heard of the airline. Turns out, Sun Country does not exchange bags with other airlines. Or passengers, we’ve learned.
Here in the Twin Cities, we tend to think of Sun Country as a big deal. It controls a lot of gates at T2, flies to most every major destination in the U.S. and our favorite beach spots. But outside this region it’s less than a niche player. It’s a tiny airline, which we were reminded of when the media revealed SY had stranded several hundred folks in Los Cabos and Mazatlan, Mexico when their planes could not leave MSP due to the weekend’s snowstorm.
Sun Country left these travelers for the same reason it wouldn’t accept a checked bag from American—it operates in isolation, like most discount carriers. It saves money by not paying other airlines for their services, and when it can’t operate a flight, it gives your money back or asks you to wait until its next available flight. It won’t book you on United, Delta or American.
The reason SY incurred the deluge of bad press was not that it cancelled the Mexico flights, but that it left hundreds of passengers in a foreign country to fend for themselves after dark. Delta sends “rescue” flights all over the globe to bring passengers home when a DL aircraft can’t operate. Its contract of carriage guarantees it will get you to your ticketed destination. Sun Country’s guarantees a refund.
The airline claimed it could not rescue its travelers because it didn’t have a spare aircraft or crew and these were the last flights of the season from these cities. (SY did operate a Los Cabos-MSP flight on Sunday, but it was a scheduled flight and had few available seats.) The more honest assessment is SY chose not to rescue these travelers for its own internal reasons.
But refunding tickets hardly compensated them for the inconvenience. Most had to find hotels and book last-minute flights that were exponentially more expensive than what they paid SY weeks prior.
This was out of character for Sun Country, which over the years built a reputation as friendly and fair, rooted like no other airline in the local market. What’s changed at Sun Country is that it has new owners and a new CEO. I doubt outgoing owners Marty and Mark Davis would have supported stranding passengers in Mexico nor risked the damage to the airline’s reputation that ensued.
But Sun Country’s been sold to an investment fund whose sole goal is to reengineer the airline to be more profitable so it can be sold again. It was a regrettable coincidence that on the very night the stranding story was blowing up, its CEO’s ex-employer, Allegiant Air, was exposed on 60 Minutes as an airline less interested in safety than controlling expenses and its employees.
Now there’s no evidence Sun Country has safety issues, nor that CEO Jude Bricker brought Allegiant’s values to Mendota Heights. But we’re left to wonder if the lack of compassion that airlines like Allegiant have for their customers and employees (as evidenced by its practices) is seeping into Sun Country, which is looking to emulate aspects of Allegiant’s business model and certainly its profitability.
I took a deep journalistic dive into Sun Country a couple years ago. It had just returned to profitability after decades of losses. But as it did, ultra discounters like Spirit and Frontier came to MSP, forcing Sun Country to lower its fares but without the array of fees (bin, boarding pass, seat) its competitors layered on. Profitability became sub-par and the Davis family went in search of a CEO with a vision and a buyer with more of a taste for the cutthroat industry.
Sun Country will no longer be locally owned, and it is looking to diversify away from an MSP-centric business model. It is a carrier with no equivalents in the industry. It leases its planes, has too little scale, and few assets other than goodwill. That it could not engineer a sale to another airline in the merger happy industry says a lot.
The Davis family learned the hard way that it’s tough to make money being the friendliest most reasonable airline in town. Sun Country’s new regime is driving a tough bottom line, which the events of last weekend illustrate in spades.
As for my kid, his SY flight from LAX arrived T2 early, but what neither of us realized at the time was that the money we saved over Delta did not guarantee him a flight home. It’s a formula Sun Country is willing to stake its future on.
Adam Platt is TCB’s executive editor.