Sun Country’s New CEO Could Remake the Airline, If Things Go Well

Unless you live in Minneapolis, there’s a good chance you don’t even know the name Sun Country. But sure enough, after more than 30 years and several ownership changes, the airline continues to fly. It’s even made money the last couple of years, but that wasn’t enough to prevent the last CEO from losing his job. In his place, Jude Bricker, formerly with Allegiant, has been announced as the successor. This is a great move…if ownership gives him free rein.

In a way, Sun Country is the anti-Allegiant. Allegiant’s original focus was to bring people from many small cities to vacation in a single destination. Sun Country’s focus is to take people from one big city (Minneapolis) and take them to vacation in a bunch of destinations. Here’s the route map.

As you can see it is almost entirely focused on Minneapolis with winter dominated by flights going south so those frozen Minnesotans can warm up. In the summer, more emphasis is on east/west flying when Minnesotans are less concerned about finding warm weather and more concerned about escaping 100 pound mosquitoes.

The fleet of 23 airplanes (6 737-700s and 17 737-800s, according to CAPA) also does charter work, which is why you’ll see ultra-glamorous Laughlin/Bullhead City with Sun Country aircraft on a regular basis.

Most of the fleet has both coach and First Class, though there are 3 all-coach airplanes which I assume are mostly for the charter work. In the back, seat pitch is what you’d expect from a more traditional airline. It’s certainly not down to ultra-low cost carrier levels, but things like baggage and food are a la carte. Still, the airline seems more like an old school low cost carrier that’s almost entirely dependent on Minnesotans wanting to travel somewhere… and not on Delta.

This may seem like a losing combination, especially since Southwest has entered Minneapolis as well now, but Sun Country continues to soldier on. The airline has had its share of trouble, but it has actually shown a profit the last couple of years, as mentioned earlier. Granted, it’s not a huge profit and 2016 was worse than 2015.
There’s a lot of work to be done, but it’s not losing money.

Now, enter Jude. Jude had been at Allegiant for over a decade on both the commercial and operating sides of the business, and he was undoubtedly one of the most capable and important architects of the airline’s success (at a senior level) during that time. But things at Allegiant have been — let’s call it “interesting” — lately with a lot of turnover and questions about the company’s focus. Jude left, and it didn’t take him long to resurface in Minnesota.

The question now is… what will he do with Sun Country? Or possibly, what will he be allowed to do by the ownership group.

Though I don’t know this for a fact, I think it’s safe to assume that Jude had a lot he wanted to do at Allegiant that didn’t happen. Either he didn’t have enough resources to get things done, he didn’t have the time, or the leader/owner at the top just didn’t want it to happen. Any of those would be a good enough reason to quit. (To be clear, this is pure speculation.)

Now Jude is coming in to Sun Country, and you have to think he wants to take some his vision for Allegiant and make it a reality in Minnesota. Yes it’s a different kind of airline, but it’s an airline that seems stuck in the middle with mediocre results and plenty of threat to its ongoing survival. It needs a new strategy.

If ownership buys into Jude’s vision and gives him the resources to carry it out, this could be very exciting to watch. Sleepy Sun Country might start turning some heads. I imagine that’s what drew Jude to the airline. It was a chance to work with an existing platform and mold it into his vision.

So, uh, what is Jude’s vision? Well, I don’t know. But I would be surprised if his pedigree as a leader at an ultra-low cost carrier like Allegiant didn’t point to where the airline is headed. That doesn’t mean it will mirror Allegiant, but I would be shocked if cost reduction wasn’t on the docket. If he can make the airline lean enough to compete on cost, then the opportunities could be endless for the airline.

If Sun Country could become the ultra-low cost carrier with a Minnesota personality (read: nice and friendly), then it could do quite well for itself.

Of course, I’m just projecting what I’d like to see. I’ve only met Jude a couple times, and I don’t know if this is his vision. But chances are, if he didn’t have a real plan here with buy-in from ownership, he wouldn’t have been offered or taken this job. It’s been years since Sun Country has been one to watch. I get the feeling that’s about to change.

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28 Comments on "Sun Country’s New CEO Could Remake the Airline, If Things Go Well"

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Itami
Guest

Reading the “ULCC with a Minnesota personality” line definitely brought Frontier 2.0 to mind, at least for me. On that same vein, while this is all obviously speculation, do you think some of these changes might entail becoming less Minneapolis-centric in the way Frontier 2.0 had deemphasized Denver in its network?

brae2day
Guest

i hope not-I used to like frontier and now I would never think of using them- they are awful

ChuckMO
Guest

By some coincidence The Motley Fool also did an opinion piece on Sun Country today:
https://www.fool.com/investing/2017/07/16/is-this-tiny-airline-about-to-challenge-delta-air.aspx

The gist of which suggests that the airline will go the ULCC route. Interesting times indeed for Sun Country.

Matt D
Guest

Laughlin/BHC actually isn’t bad if you’re into boating or casinos but with a million less people around. Think Las Vegas (ultra) lite. Otherwise I agree. The locals are mostly retirees, tweakers, and other assorted dirt people losers. Still, it is worth a visit as evidenced by the number of weekend boaters from SoCal and snowbirds (via Sun Country) that basically prop up the whole region. I’ve been there many times. It’s fun for a weekend visit, but not someplace I’d want to call home.

GringoLoco
Member

+1 — have spent several weeks (in total) on a houseboat out of Katherine Landing. Lake Mohave is a great getaway!

Nick Barnard
Member

Calling other people “dirt people” is cruel and dehumanizes all of us.

A
Guest
This should be interesting to watch being local to MSP. Personally I’d prefer to see SY emulate JetBlue more than Allegiant. As you mentioned Southwest is in the market as is Spirit. Delta is clearly dominant while the other legacies pretty much only fly to their hubs. As a business traveler having secondary options that can match or better what DL delivers is what I selfishly want. The funny thing is that when I have wanted to visit that “sun country” destination in the winter months Delta Vacations has always offered a much better deal than SY. Something not to… Read more »
Jorg
Guest

It’s not just Minnesota that knows Sun Country, even here in the Netherlands they’re known: they lease planes to Transavia during summer ;-). In winter it’s reversed, when you can see Transavia planes flying around the US.

curious
Guest

Hmm. An all 737 fleet in a mid country hub? Paging the Eskimo…

Nick Barnard
Member

I’ve heard it kicked around… but the Eskimo gets lots of lower yielding leisure flights and not much else. (Sun Country’s planes are leased from what I’ve heard.)

Itami
Guest

Indeed. As much as we might quibble about the sticker price, the VX deal at least got AS some real estate in America’s most congested and competitive airports. MSP doesn’t exactly fit either category.

Zack Rules
Guest

Sounds like another “Across the Aisle” interview is needed!

robert_
Guest

It even had a brief (and I mean very brief) transatlantic service.

RaflW
Guest

Their weekly runs with technical stops were an interesting moment in the airline’s history. To this day I wonder what they were testing out.

stogieguy7
Guest

I’ve always thought that they’d be an attractive purchase for Southwest – reminiscent of when they bought Morris Air (Salt Lake City) back in the 90s. WN flies the same equipment as Sun Country and are even in the same terminal at MSP.

Anthony
Member

Indeed… it’s surprising SWA hasn’t made a run at Sun Country…

Patrick
Guest
Southwest’s acquisitions have been about eliminating competitors more than anything else. And I think they (along with UA, Delta, and AA) see more value in the continuing existence of SY… at least so far. SY’s pretty nonthreatening, and they help preserve the appearance of a competitive marketplace. Eliminating SY would likely trigger antitrust action, and even if it an acquiring airline were able to prevail (likely with concessions), it would make it that much harder next time any airline wants to do something that comes up for government review. And WN and AS must recognize that DL’s not going to… Read more »
TB
Guest

For the record, SY has all-coach configurations only on the aircraft that they lease from Transavia in the winter. The rest of the fleet has first class.

Lundberry
Member
As a resident of the Twin Cities and someone who flies SY on a semi regular basis I have to say they run a pretty nice operation (though they give EVERYONE tsa pre). Flying out of Terminal 2 at MSP is literally the best like 20 minute security lines on a bad day for the regular line and 5 minutes on a bad day for Pre-Check. As others have noted there are definitely some markets that are cheaper to fly with others to. But some flights we couldn’t beat the price for in particular flying into GPT which has charters… Read more »
TC
Guest

I don’t know if Sun Country still flies to MIA, but they used to then utilize this plane to fly charters to Cuba before returning to MSP later in the day. With the assignment of regular routes now to Cuba, I don’t believe they are still in this business.

brae2day
Guest

I LOVE Sun Country and use them every chance I get- it’s cheap, comfortable and best of all, NONSTOP without paying for it! I hope none of that changes!

Spirit FF
Member
Here in DFW, Sun Country actually has quite a few flights. Daily service (I believe twice) to MSP, and year round service to CUN and CZM. In addition, they do several charter programs during the summer. Also, Sun Country is heavily into sports charters, specifically the NCAA. They are one of the few “scheduled” carriers doing sports charters, as that has turned into a specialty business with Miami Air, Xtra Airways, Ameristar, SkyKing/Songbird, and others. I expect to see Sun Country continue the NCAA charters, as well as the Apple Vacation/MHT Vacations Mexico charters. I would guess their next move… Read more »
RaflW
Guest
A couple of thoughts, as a Twin Cities based traveler (though I haven’t personally flown Sun Country since they retired their 727s… Yep, that long ago!). First, I think Southwest is a limited competitor to Sun Country. SY fliies nonstop to a bunch of destinations, infrequently (and a few with 2X daily). WN does a few nonstop cities with frequency and lots of onward connections out of MSP. Both can work for leisure, but except where they compete nonstop to nonstop, I think travelers segment themselves somewhat by preferring frequency with hassle, or convenience with infrequency. All that said, it… Read more »
Mirza Ahmed
Member

The only time I flew Sun Country (JFK to MSP), the thing that stood out to me was the width of the seat backs (at least 4-5 inches). This didn’t make the seats any more comfortable than standard airline seats, but took up a lot of space. SY should either switch to Slimline seats (like Spirit and Frontier) and add more seats, or increase seat pitch.

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