Abby Pettit and her family had been vacationing in Mexico and were getting ready to catch their weekend flight back to Minnesota when they got a stunning message from Sun Country Airlines: your plane is not coming and you're on your own.
Winter weather had cancelled their flight back to Minneapolis. That wasn't a huge surprise - the Pettits were getting pictures of the massive April snowstorm from folks back in Minnesota. But late Saturday, April 14, Pettit said she got another email from the airline: "Due to the weather and that our seasonal service has ended, you will now need to make arrangements to get home. We apologize for any inconvenience."
They were stranded. Pettit, her husband and their two kids had been promised a refund on the flight to Minnesota they didn't take, but the tickets apparently didn't guarantee a flight home. Sun Country's terms of service, called a contract of carriage says point blank: "Purchase of a ticket does not guarantee transportation."
It took Pettit another day to find an airline that would get them back to Minnesota without an overnight stopover. The four tickets added another $2,000 to the cost of their vacation.
"Cancelling flights and all that due to the weather. We saw what was happening, so we get that," said Pettit, who lives in Detroit Lakes, Minn. "But the fact that they just thought it was OK to say, 'Oh, find your own way home,' that's not OK."
Other travelers were offering similar stories. A letter to the Department of Transportation from Minnesota DFL U.S. Senator Tina Smith says there were about 250 people involved. Smith has asked the federal DOT to examine the cancellation policies of Sun Country Airlines.
In the letter, which was posted to Smith's Twitter account Monday night, she asks the general counsel's office to "ensure that cancellation policies affecting airline travelers, especially those stranded in foreign countries, appropriately protect consumers."
Former Sun Country CEO Jay Salmen said he thinks he knows what happened.
"In the heavy travel vacation season of the winter, Sun Country would enhance its fleet by leasing Transavia aircraft from the Netherlands. That's a slow time for them. They have extra capacity and their planes are sitting on the ground," Salmen said.
But like a rental car, those planes must go back, and those flight crews move on.
Salmen hasn't been with the airline since 2012 and is now an attorney in Minneapolis.
In a statement sent Monday evening, a Sun Country spokesperson explained that their fleet had been scheduled to fly elsewhere, and that the company wasn't able to redirect them or send additional aircraft to Los Cabos and Mazatlan - calling it their "most challenging recovery situation."
"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," said Sun Country's vice president of marketing, Kelsey Dodson-Smith in a statement. She added that Sun Country was working to re-accommodate passengers on flights affected by the weather in other areas, as well as reduce wait times to their reservations call center, which has experienced a "significant increase of call volume" due to the travel woes.
Aviation analysts reported in December that the Transavia deal was still in place when the airline was sold from Minnesota owners to Apollo Global Management. Recent photos show planes from each airline bearing the other's brand.
Salmen said it's a hybrid model - owning some planes, leasing others - to boost capacity and avoid some of the overhead of keeping planes on the ground.
But that model wouldn't necessarily prevent the company from bringing its customers home either, Salmen said. They could just as well have chartered other planes and averted the doubt and anger he says the airlines customers have now.
"The 2, 3, 4 planes to deadhead down and bring those passengers back is not nearly as costly, I would expect, as what this is going to do to them," Salmen said.