Day 2 of canceled flights turns vacation travel into a quagmire for Sun Country passengers

An attempt to fix a faulty data system forced Sun Country Airlines to cancel flights for a second day on Tuesday, and angry passengers in Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport overwhelmed its customer service at one of the busiest times for travel this year.

The Minneapolis-based airline announced a “pause” in operations shortly before 1 p.m. so that a technology vendor could install software to fix an issue that caused cancellations and delays on Monday.

The two days of disrupted service revealed weaknesses in the way Sun Country books tickets and responds to customers. For Cory Williams of Woodbury, it all meant that a trip he and six other family members had planned to Arizona this week, ending at the Grand Canyon for the New Years, was called off.

Among Sun Country’s cancellations on Monday was a flight to Phoenix that Williams had originally booked for his family. He booked them on a Sun Country flight to Tucson on Tuesday, only to see that also canceled.

“I was thinking at this point, just forget it,” Williams said Tuesday afternoon. “To change hotel room, change rental car again, it’s just too hard.”

The disruptions have frustrated passengers at many airlines in recent weeks. The rapid spread of the latest variant of COVID-19 has sickened airline crews and staff, leading to thousands of daily flight cancellations over Christmas weekend, but only 1,200 on Tuesday, according to FlightAware, a flight information service provider.

For Sun Country, this week’s issues are delaying efforts to rebuild trust after customer service debacles in 2018 and 2019.

Sun Country canceled all of its flights before 8 a.m. Monday, citing a network system failure at a technology provider. These cancellations resulted in delays in his system throughout the day and at least one more cancellation on Monday night.

With planes and crews reset, Sun Country started normally on Tuesday. But at the end of the morning, its supplier informed the company of the plan to upgrade its software immediately. Unable to function without this system, Sun Country sent text messages and emails to passengers on flights it was due to cancel in the afternoon.

But passengers have complained on social media that Sun Country does not automatically book them on other flights, a common practice with other airlines. Instead, he asked passengers to buy tickets for new flights and then request reimbursement for canceled flights.

“I have 14 tickets to reimburse,” Williams said. “I’m not going to try to rework anything. I just want our money back.”

On its website, Sun Country said Tuesday’s system update required it to cancel “seven roundtrip departures from our Minneapolis-St. Paul hub.” The airline added: “We recognize that this news is unwelcome and disruptive to our passengers and their families and we sincerely apologize for the necessity of this action.”

On July 1, Sun Country canceled four of 91 scheduled flights, saying crew planning software provided by Dubai-based AIMS International had failed. He manually cleared crews to take off, which the airline said it also did during Monday’s blackout. However, Sun Country has not publicly identified the supplier responsible for this week’s issues.

Sun Country turned to Minneapolis-based Navitaire in 2019 to create the primary infrastructure used for its reservations, website, travel agent portals, and passenger processing and boarding at airports.

This week’s service disruption affected far more passengers than an episode that made headlines in April 2018, when a late-winter storm forced Sun Country to cancel flights on routes between Mexico and the United States. Timing played against the airline because those flights were the last of its winter season service to Mexican resort towns. The cancellations stranded 250 customers, who had to return home on other airlines.

Anastasia Salazar, a graphic designer from San Francisco who visited the Twin Cities for Christmas, arrived with her partner Monday evening at MSP for their flight back to Sun Country. But when they reached their door, they found out that it had been canceled.

“They canceled it about 40 minutes before take off,” Salazar said. “There was no explanation and they offered no type of hotel or refund.”

She said an agent told her to return to the airport on Wednesday morning for a new trip to San Francisco, and the couple found a local Airbnb owner who took a last-minute reservation.

On Tuesday morning, Salazar waited two hours on the airline’s customer service hotline for more details. After talking for a few minutes with an agent, Salazar learned that the airline couldn’t offer him anything. When she insisted, Salazar said, the officer told her, “My supervisor advised me to hang up on me. “

Early Monday, Anna Henderson of St. Paul, along with her husband and son, were driving from a beach to the airport in Fort Myers, Fla., For their afternoon flight home to Sun Country, when they have seen an email that the the flight was canceled. A spokeswoman for the airline said the flight was canceled for reasons unrelated to the system outage.

The family met helpful agents at the Fort Myers airport who booked them for a 9:15 pm flight. They finally left at 10:30 p.m. and arrived at MSP in the wee hours of Tuesday morning. It was the family’s first vacation since the coronavirus outbreak, and Henderson said it shows travel to the United States has not returned to normal before the pandemic.

“We got there, we had a great time, but it looked like a lot of betting,” said Henderson.

She said she kept asking herself two questions: “Should we stay home because the world doesn’t work like it used to?” Or do we think there’s a social agreement and that we can do that normal kind of thing and it’s okay? “

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