Sun Country Airlines’ decision to strand customers in Mexico was poor customer service. But the way it treated its travel-agent partners made things much worse, for everyone involved.
At Riverdale Travel in Coon Rapids, Minnesota, for example, Owner Sandy Anderson says the fiasco that trapped 30 of her customers south of the border marked a shift in her relationship with her “hometown airline” that will never quite be made right.
“They’ve been a good airline, but it seems like their relationship with the travel agent has really changed,” Anderson said. Under new President and CEO Jude Bricker, formerly president and CEO of Allegiant Airlines, “'We have gone from being a partner to being a third party’ – that’s what they kept calling us in Twitter," Anderson added. "Twitter kept saying if you booked through a ‘third party’ you have to go back to them, but we couldn’t help anyone because we couldn’t get any information about what was going on. And then it reflected on us, that we chose to put our customers on an airline that let us down.”
A blizzard followed by mistakes
In a blizzard that closed the Minneapolis airport and kept customer-service reps from reaching the office to provide phone support, and with just one last bank of flights scheduled to bring passengers home from Mexico, Sun Country decided to just email passengers to please find their own way home and they would pay them for the unused portion of their tickets. In a statement that its president posted on Facebook and sent to Travel Market Report when asked to comment about this story, it said it canceled 40 flights, affecting about 6,000 customers.
“Many of our customers booked through travel agents or online travel providers, which means we do not have access to the passenger’s contact information. In cases that we do have the passenger’s phone number, generally, we reach our customers about 20 percent of the time,” the statement says. “Oftentimes, the emails we send them route through the travel agent or online travel provider and don’t arrive to the customer immediately. So, on Saturday … we decided the most efficient way to reach them was via email.”
That was mistake number one, Anderson said. As she started to get frantic calls from customers in Mexico, she tried calling the airline — where no one picked up; posting on Facebook herself; and finally, calling her BDM, who was on maternity leave. Meanwhile, Apple Vacations and Funjet Vacations contacted her, and helped accommodate and rebook the customers she had booked through them. Ironically, customers she booked through Sun Country Vacation fared the worst, with no support at all.
Sun Country is “redoing its business model as a low-cost carrier, and we have started seeing changes in their communication and involvement with the travel agent community,” Anderson said. “We’ve had situations before where airlines have canceled their last leg coming home, but they always set up a way to protect our mutual customers, and purchased tickets for people to come home. This experience reinforced what the future is likely to be like.”
“Inexcusable,” agreed Stella Larson, owner/travel advisor at Windmill Travel, LLC, of Alba, Texas, noting that the Sun Country fiasco brings up other important issues travel agents should consider, no matter which airline they use. “Of course, my first thoughts are ‘Hope they had travel insurance’ and ‘Hope they used an agent,’ but then you start thinking about how it is legal to leave clients stranded if you refund the ticket. I must admit, I never read their fine print where the purchase of a ticket does not guarantee transportation. Now I am thinking Sun Country may be on my personal ‘do not fly list.’“
Emily Bookey-Kladivo, Owner of Emily's Travel, LLC, in Hibbing, Minnesota, also was unable to reach anyone at Sun Country to help her stranded clients; already on their way to the airport, they caught another carrier’s flight to Chicago and drove home. “So disappointed. I will do everything in my power not to sell them. We won’t forget this,” she said.
Still, noting that Sun Country is often the only direct and inexpensive option, Cruise Planners Travel Agent Ashley Porfilio Delgado in Roanoke, Texas, said she will surely be more careful when booking them. “I won't say I will never sell them again, but if I do I will advise clients and give expectations,” she said.
So what’s an agent to do?
Travel agents do, indeed, need to be very careful about liability when booking a client with a company that has had public issues like this, said Attorney Paul Ruden, who served as ASTA’s counsel for many years. In a recent article in Travel Market Report on airline safety, which presumably applies as well to airlines that say they have no responsibility to get you home when something goes wrong, he said, “Agents should always make clear in writing to customers that they do not operate aircraft and act only as agents for airlines that do.”
But things get more complicated when “the agent knows or has reason to know that there is or may be an unusual or specific problem with a carrier on which a customer is requesting a booking. Such knowledge, whether actual or presumed, imposes a difficult burden on the agent. Courts are less likely to absolve an agent when a consumer is standing before the judge saying that the agent knew there was a problem with airline A or cruise line B but failed to reveal it, thereby leaving the passenger to her fate.
“Therefore, the second core piece of standard advice has always been that the agent should disclose what she knows to the traveler prior to the traveler’s making a final decision. Smart business practice then says the agent should present the consumer with the next best alternatives. These may involve higher prices or other benefit reductions but, importantly, they give the consumer options.
“Then, and this is very important, have the traveler make the decision based on the information the agent provided. Do not let the traveler shift the decision to you with ‘you’re the expert here, so I’ll do whatever you say.'"
In the meantime, Sun Country’s Bricker said it has “made that commitment that in addition to refunding their original roundtrip ticket, we will also cover any additional reasonable transportation costs they incurred in excess of their original Sun Country roundtrip fare, not limited to the difference they paid on another carrier, but also including taxis, shuttles, any reasonable transportation costs required to get them to and from the airport. We have a special email address set up and staff dedicated to assist those passengers.”
Bricker added that “clearly, going forward, we need to improve our ability to handle stresses to our system like what we experienced over the weekend. Automation will be central to that strategy. But, more on that later.”