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

Sun Country

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

  1. 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?

    1. Itami – I agree, that it sounds like what Frontier wanted to do. But Frontier has stepped on itself multiple times in this process. It hasn’t in any way earned the “friendlier ULCC” title it initially wanted.

      If Jude does change the Sun Country business model, I would assume it would absolutely look beyond Minneapolis. I’m not sure if that means it would shrink Minneapolis or not, but it wouldn’t be a surprise.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 forget is that SY operates out of terminal 2 at MSP which is much less congested. If they can get their flight schedules worked out they could probably operate efficient connections – albeit limited based on gates. This could also be a selling point to the weary business traveler since terminal 2 never has lack of parking and has shorter security lines and walks to the gate.

  4. 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.

    1. 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.)

      1. 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.

    1. 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.

  5. 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.

      1. 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 play as nicely with either of them as they do with SY.

        Also, looking at the SY routemap, it’s interesting to see they serve five nonstop destinations out of DFW… I had no idea. Is DFW their second biggest operation?

        1. Patrick – I believe so. I think they use DFW to fly south more during the summer. It’s an aircraft utilization play, I’d assume, when there’s less demand from Minneapolis. I’d bet they work with a local agency or tour operator to fill those.

  6. 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.

      1. Actually (as a former employee) First Class seats are installed on the Transavia aircraft as well however there is no divider between the cabins. Just sayin…..

  7. 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 running out of it on a regular basis for a number of the hotels down there. They really do know what they are doing.

    While WN is an amazing carrier I don’t think that they would go for the particular network that SY flies currently. They seem to be getting away from serving the smaller markets. From everyone I have talked to since the Cambria purchase of SY the carrier has had a lot more stability. Though I am guessing that Cambria isn’t going to hold onto the carrier forever. I would guess they brought in Jude so that this carrier can be made pretty for a potential purchaser.

  8. 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.

  9. 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!

  10. 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 would be to establish a secondary “focus” city. The best city matching MSP, would be CLT. It’s dominated by on airline (AA), and like MSP, probably lots of ‘leftover’ local traffic by the hub carrier Sun Country can pick off and fly to vacation destinations in Florida, the Caribbean, Mexico, and the West Coast!

  11. 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 does appear that SY offers some nice services, and could, if it wanted to, build on them: Both Icelandair and Condor use SY to feed US traffic to longhaul, and offer connections to Europeans arriving here. It is an unusual and perhaps small niche, but we’ve seen both CFG and FI increase frequency into MSP the past couple of years. I’d hate to see the new CEO lose those connecting opportunities, something I’d imagine an Allegiant-like shift would entail.

  12. 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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