As Sun Country prepares to expand, employees raise concerns about staffing and fatigue
As the airline industry continues to rebound from the pandemic, Minnesota-based Sun Country Airlines is reporting better than expected profits while preparing to add dozens of new planes and routes.
But as the airline begins its slow ascent into a larger company, there’s a concern among some employees about whether staff can keep up with the pace, according to an internal memo obtained by 5 INVESTIGATES.
In early January, a group of workers in the maintenance department – referred to as Tech Ops – wrote to upper management that the department is “not sufficiently staffed to maintain the fleet at a healthy level” and it’s not sustainable based on the airline’s “forecast growth.”
The letter also cites “hurried and at times, fatigued workers,” “increases in mistakes by technicians” and “regulatory compliance issues.”
In an interview with 5 INVESTIGATES, one of Sun Country’s top executives says the airline is currently not short staffed but acknowledged that the airline has faced challenges mainly with the omicron variant of COVID-19 that surfaced late last year.
“Safety is our first priority,” said Greg Mays, Chief Operating Officer at Sun Country Airlines.
“If we don’t have the right people, the right staff, it’s not right – my directive to all of our employees is to stop the operation. And we’ll have your back.”
The employees’ concerns were submitted through a voluntary program that most airlines participate in called the Aviation Safety Action Program, effectively known as ASAP.
The program, which is run by the Federal Aviation Administration, encourages workers to speak freely about safety issues and then resolves them through corrective action rather than through punishment or discipline.
The FAA told 5 INVESTIGATES it is aware of the Sun Country letter and is looking into it.
Longtime aviation consultant Mark Sawyer said the letter outlining the employees’ concerns are “not very common.”
“If you’re being hurried in your work, or you don’t have the adequate time to go get a part or whatever the problem is, you’re not going to feel good about signing the airplane off because once they sign off that it’s safe to fly, then it’s their responsibility,” he said.
In a statement, Sun Country spokesperson Jessica Wheeler told 5 INVESTIGATES that “staffing is a focus for the entire industry and at Sun Country we have good plans and are executing them well.”
Wheeler added that the airline is “focused on meeting the needs of employees and attracting and retaining talent.”
Despite the pandemic, Sun Country says the airline actually grew in 2020, largely due to a contract with Amazon. The airline has told investors that it plans to buy 15 more planes by the end of next year.
“We actually, I believe, provide a value to our passengers here in the Midwest. There’s demand for flying and we want to be able to satisfy that demand,” Mays said.
Sun Country said it has rolled out some broader initiatives to address staffing and mitigate risk associated with fatigue – and one of those initiatives includes expanding recruitment efforts and leaning on retired technicians for help.
Sun Country’s pilot’s union has not returned multiple calls seeking comment.