Sun Country Airlines and its passengers endured a lot of turbulence on the ground this summer.
The Eagan-based carrier in June switched to a new technology system to improve bookings and make other steps simpler for customers. But for weeks, it had the opposite effect.
“That one big move is like remodeling a house,” Brian Davis, the airline’s chief marketing officer, said this month.
In the worst moments, Sun Country customers faced three-hour waits to reach a customer-service agent by phone. Waits to get checked in at the airline’s counter at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport stretched to an hour or more. In response, Sun Country increased the number of customer-service agents to 125 from 75.
But it took the airline about three weeks to dig itself out of a backlog of customer-service requests and issues. Now things are running more efficiently, but the true test will come with the heavier holiday-travel season.
The new technology system is easier to learn, so it only takes eight days to train a new customer-service agent, as opposed to six weeks under the old system.
Once the new call-center workers were trained and the airline staffed up, call-center queue times — or the length of time it takes for a customer and agent to connect — have dropped. It is now consistently under 30 seconds, the airline said last week.
The transition has been the latest rough patch for the airline as it undergoes a multiyear transformation into an ultralow-cost carrier. Sun Country’s new owner, Apollo Global Management, and its relatively new leadership team believe the airline must target price-sensitive travelers headed to leisure destinations if it is to survive the next economic downturn.
The changes over the past two years have upset some of Sun Country’s longtime customers, who mostly fly in and out of the airline’s hometown hub, MSP. And the airline admits it has had some missteps along the way.
But Chief Executive Jude Bricker said most of the latest issues caused by the technology upgrade have been solved and the short-lived pain will be worth it.
All customer bookings and reservations data, as well as behind-the-scenes flight-safety features, transferred smoothly when the switch began in late June. But, as often happens when companies have a major technology transfer, Sun Country’s changeover process hit some unforeseen snags — and they were largely ones felt by the customers.
For instance, the new system needed Sun Country loyalty members to reset their account passwords. The airline sent out a mass of e-mails to its account holders. The sheer volume of e-mails being sent out at one time triggered servers at Google and Yahoo to temporarily block the dissemination of these messages, flagging them as potential spam mail. By the time the servers released the e-mails, the time-sensitive reset links embedded in the e-mails had expired. The only way for loyalty members to access their accounts at that point was to call the airline’s call center.
The call queues started building.
If flights were canceled or delayed, some passengers were automatically rebooked, but others found their rescheduled flights didn’t work with their travel plans. Those customers would then need to call Sun Country for a refund, further jamming the lines.
Passengers lodged complaints with the U.S. Department of Transportation; 85% of the complaints the agency has received about Sun Country this year happened in the two months immediately after the technology change.
The airline’s social media accounts, too, were lit up with negative comments, mostly related to customers’ inability to reach an airline representative by phone, Davis said.
In June, Virginia Spaniolo and her husband booked a Sun Country flight from MSP to Santa Barbara, Calif., for their son’s birthday in August. In early July, Sun Country canceled that flight and automatically rebooked them on an outbound flight the day after their original booking, which would make them miss their son’s birthday. The couple decided to cancel their Sun Country flights and fly Delta Air Lines to Los Angeles instead to arrive on time. But when they tried to cancel their booking, they were warned they would each be dinged the $100 cancellation fee — because of an operations change made by Sun Country.
They tried calling the airline nearly a dozen times, with Spaniolo sitting on the phone for two hours one time and 2 ½ hours another. Finally, the Twin Cities resident drove herself down to the airline’s corporate headquarters in Eagan and rang the front doorbell. The security guard sent down a customer-service agent who apologized profusely, telling her their wait times were up to 3 ½ hours. Within 10 minutes, their reservations were canceled and five days later their refund was deposited.
“I was just lucky because it was on my way that day,” Spaniolo said.
Airport lines and baggage
Long lines at check-in desks were one reason executives said they needed the technology upgrade. The old system required passengers to visit the ticket counter for four different reasons: to check a bag, to verify passports on international flights, to get a seat assignment if they hadn’t preselected during booking and to verify they met the age requirement for an exit-row seat.
With its new technology, Sun Country can start using self-check kiosks for two of those four reasons — checking in for international flights and seat assignments — Davis said. The exit-row age verification step is moving to the departure gate, leaving bag check as the sole reason customers would have to visit the ticket counter.
The 12 kiosks, which are owned by the airport’s governing body, the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), should be installed as early as November, said airport spokesman Patrick Hogan.
With the arrival of the kiosks, Sun Country expects its lines to be significantly reduced, given that about 50% of the airline’s passengers check a bag.
Bricker said its former system constrained the airline in several other ways, too. For instance, Sun Country didn’t own its own website and operated on two separate booking and reservation systems that didn’t always work well together.
“We would have to call up the website owner in Germany anytime we wanted to make a change to our own site,” he said. “Now, we control our own destiny.”
Sun Country hired Minneapolis-based Navitaire to move the airline from its old two-program system to a single-technology platform. The new system is supposed to give customers greater control over their reservations.
The airline has also struggled with lost, mishandled and severely delayed baggage issues over the past year and a half. Sun Country’s baggage-claim processes began crumbling in the summer of 2018 after the airline outsourced many of those jobs, losing longtime employees and know-how along with them. In March, executives redesigned the baggage-claim protocols to prevent such egregious service gaps. Hogan, MSP’s spokesman, said the airport has seen a precipitous drop in customers calling them to complain about Sun Country’s baggage claim.
Sun Country said it is pleased that it has “drastically improved carousel wait times.” The airline’s goal is to get every bag to the baggage-claim carousel within 23 minutes of the aircraft’s gate arrival. A Sun Country spokeswoman said they “now consistently average well below our target.”
DOT tracks formal baggage complaints but has a one-month reporting lag, so August numbers won’t be released until next month.
Jerry Fuller, Sun Country’s former senior director of operations at MSP, worked for the company for 15 years before retiring in December 2017. He has since started his own contracting firm, Innovative Handling Solutions, that does aviation services — like baggage handling — on behalf of airlines at MSP. In his new job, he spends considerable time at both terminals and has watched Sun Country’s baggage handling evolve over the past year.
“It looks to me as if they are getting better at handling bags. I don’t think they are back up to average, but they are certainly better than they were a year ago,” Fuller said. “As they go on, they will get smarter. They will learn their lessons and they will do better.”
Low-cost model has own risks
Some customer frustrations are unavoidable. Sun Country’s ultra-low-cost carrier model only works if the airline can maximize its aircraft fleet by keeping the planes flying and reducing overhead costs.
That means there aren’t extra aircraft just sitting around waiting to pinch-hit if another aircraft gets seriously delayed, potentially rippling through the system by causing the next flight to be canceled. The airline is expanding to new cities, often flying the routes once or twice a week. If a customer’s flight is canceled or delayed, they may not have another option for a few days or another week.
“So if you lose your bag, you may not see it for several days if they don’t fly there for several days,” Fuller said. “There are just inherent risks with the model.”
These reputational bumps and bruises will eventually retrain the passengers to better know what to expect, Fuller said, adding that Sun Country will attract a certain type of flier who is willing to make trade-offs.
But Sun Country also knows it has to be more available to customers when things do go wrong. With more customer-service agents and the baggage handling improving, the kiosks are the next step. Davis said they may be operating by Thanksgiving, but most likely by Christmas.