(KMSP) - Among the hundreds of passengers stranded in Mexico when Sun Country Airlines canceled several return flights to MSP International Airport is the majority of Hayden and Kristi Courrier's wedding party, the result of a record-setting blizzard that rocked most of the upper Midwest over the weekend.
Both the Courriers made it back to Minnesota Monday, though for many of the couple's family and friends their trip to paradise turned into a travel nightmare.
"Everyone was supposed to fly out from Saturday and Sunday, all those [flights were] canceled," Hayden said after stepping off the plane at MSP. "[Sun Country] didn’t help them reschedule anything. Some people had to spend $1,000 just to get home."
Sun Country said in a statement this weekend's snowstorm "slammed" their operations, forcing at least 40 canceled flights and even more diversions and delays--par for the course for flights coming into and out of MSP during the blizzard.
The real problems, however, came with the cancellations of several flights out of Mexico--Mazatlan and San Jose del Cabo--the airline's last flights out of the area for the season.
"As soon as we realized we would be unable to re-accommodate these passengers we let them know of the situation and gave them a full airfare refund to make alternative arrangements," Sun Country said in their statement, a move that effectively left those passengers stuck for hours, even days as they attempted to find another airline with service to MSP.
“It was pretty much, 'Tough luck, you're on your own, we’re not coming back to get you," Hayden said, noting that much of his wedding party won't be able to fly out until Thursday.
Another group of Sun Country passengers found themselves paying four times the original ticket value for tickets out of Cancun Monday, sleeping on the airport floor in lieu of booking another room in town. Now in Minnesota, they headed straight for the company's headquarters in Eagan in an attempt to speak with a human being after hours trying to reach someone on the phone.
"They call themselves our hometown airline but they didn’t seem to care if they stranded us in Mexico where 14 people were murdered last week," said Mike Kolar, one of 12 people in his group affected by the flight cancellations. "They won’t even answer their calls."
The airline now finds itself in the middle of a public relations nightmare as it undergoes a major transition to new owners Apollo Global Management, a New York-based investment firm that bought the company late last year.
Sun Country will keep its headquarters in Eagan following the change in ownership, though many of the stranded passengers wonder if their hometown airline is abandoning Minnesota Nice in the process.
"When you look at a private equity group, they come and they buy [a company] to make money off of it," said Paul Omodt, a crisis communications specialist who spent 10 years in the airline industry. "It’s very transactional. They look to buy a business and flip it possibly in a couple years, so now they have to come back and say is customer service going to be a tenant of our business model--so far, I’m saying probably not."
Sun Country's full statement:
"As you’re already aware, the blizzard significantly impacted all of our MSP operations as well as other carriers flying in and out of the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport. Due to the extreme weather in the area, 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.
"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.
"For all other weather impacted flights, we are actively re-accommodating passengers to get them safely on their way.
"Again, we sincerely apologize to our passengers who have been affected by the storm then delayed in reaching their destinations."