Final Four organizers say Sun Country canceled team charters week before flights

Organizers for the women’s Final Four in Minneapolis say their relationship with the hometown airline soured last month after Sun Country canceled the teams’ charter flights a week before takeoff.

Twin Cities-based Sun Country Airlines was supposed to shuttle the final four teams to and from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport last Monday and Tuesday — and then hold a welcome celebration at its airplane hangar.

But Wendy Blackshaw, CEO and president of Minnesota Sports and Events, said that after months of planning and discussions, the airline canceled a week before the teams’ arrivals.

Sun Country informed the planners that, due to an aircraft maintenance issue, the hangar wouldn’t be available, Blackshaw said.

The airline says it offered its headquarters building, which is adjacent to the hangar, as an alternative space for the welcome event, but the host committee told them it wasn’t large enough.

Sun Country said it had “discussed” providing the charter service for the teams with event organizers. “But given the peak travel season and our scheduled service, we were not able to add those charters,” said Wendy Burt, a spokeswoman for the airline.

March is Sun Country’s busiest month with Minnesota’s spring breakers clamoring for tickets to warmer destinations.

“The airlines are trying to meet all this demand right now and we had to prioritize our scheduled service,” Burt said, adding they didn’t want to confound people’s spring break plans.

When plans fell through, Minneapolis event organizers turned to Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines.

“We moved over to Delta and they did a phenomenal job,” Blackshaw said. “Delta bent over backwards to make the space really clean and nice, so we went in and decorated it. Their arrivals were awesome.”

Delta’s technical operations teams at MSP handled the women’s teams’ arrivals, said John Mazza, general manager of Delta’s MSP base maintenance.

“We were able to quickly pivot to accommodate flight arrangements for all four schools, and the Delta MSP team jumped into action to ensure the team’s experience was exactly what these elite athletes deserve,” Mazza said in a statement.

After landing, each team was taken for a 15-minute welcome at a decorated Delta hangar where Milwaukee Bucks DJ Shawna spun music.

By Tuesday last week, all Final Four teams were in town. They were: Connecticut, Louisville, South Carolina and Stanford.

Delta is the dominant carrier at MSP, accounting for more than 70% of all passenger traffic. Sun Country is a distant second with 10% of all passenger traffic at MSP.

The two airlines operate on different business models, which played a role in this kerfuffle.

Delta builds slack into its system — which typically translates into higher airfare — to accommodate for unexpected scheduling conflicts. This includes extra aircraft, people and time. Sun Country is able to keep fares low by running a lean operation with a tight schedule and staffing levels. This leaves little wiggle room for delays or maintenance setbacks.

The airline industry, in general, has struggled over the last six months to keep operations running smoothly and without disruption. The holidays saw a bevy of cancellations across multiple airlines with sick crew members and aircraft availability foiling plans.

Sun Country was founded as a charter airline before branching out into scheduled service — industry parlance for commercial air travel. The airline also runs a sizeable cargo business, including a major contract with Amazon.

Today, it is the leading charter airline for NCAA sports, flying more than 150 college sports teams in 2021, according to a recent securities filing. Apart from athletic teams, Sun Country is a frequent contractor for the US Department of Defense and private casinos.

More than 20% of its revenue comes from its charter business.

“We have valued the charter service we’ve provided in the past for the NCAA and hope to be able to partner with them again in the future,” the airline said in a statement.

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