Sun Country Dreams of Chasing Demand Through The Endless Summer

Last week at the Boyd Conference, Sun Country’s new CEO Jude Bricker had something of a coming out party. We had already heard that the airline wanted to become an Ultra Low Cost Carrier (ULCC), but how would it be different than all the rest? In a presentation to the conference as well as in a lengthy media gathering right after, Jude laid out his plan. It revolves around being nice, cutting costs, and being nimble enough to chase demand wherever it may exist, even if just for 12 weeks at a time in any given market. It’s that last bullet point, which sounds a lot like dream of The Endless Summer, that really caught my attention.

The idea of being able to just chase demand sounds great in theory but is hard in practice. Jude knows that, but he thinks Sun Country is uniquely prepared. It’s true that the airline does have a lot of experience in flexing its operation. As Jude noted, the airline does a lot of charter work that requires being able to move airplanes and cater the product to fit the needs of whomever paid for the service. Flexibility is built into that model. (And the flying is profitable.)

At the same time, Sun Country also has the ability to flex its fleet size in a way that we don’t often see in the US. The airline has 22 737s today (16 737-800s in addition to 6 737-700s which will likely be returned to the lessor as soon as possible). But during the winter when those Minnesotans really want to go down to the Caribbean and warm up, Sun Country leases in 5 extra 737s from Transavia over in Europe. Demand for short-haul travel within Europe during the winter is very weak, so for Transavia, shipping off 5 airplanes at that time of year is great. And Sun Country has the ability to really flex itself when times are good.

With that flexibility, Jude wants to remake the airline’s scheduled service so that it floats from market to market when demand is high. For example, he mentioned the New York to Florida market since it’s a bloodbath for much of the year. But for 12 weeks around late winter/Spring Break, the market does well. That’s a place where Sun Country might want to be, if only for 12 weeks. Another example? The West Coast to Hawai’i, at least as of now, has insatiable demand and high fares during the 12 weeks of summer. Sun Country might be interested in doing that, and already having ETOPS means it can do it easily. Jude sounded a bit cautious on Hawai’i, suggesting that it might make sense now, but as newer aircraft get delivered to other airlines and capacity ramps up, it might not always make sense. But that’s ok. Sun Country would reevaluate season by season when building it schedule.

The first obvious questions here is… how the heck are they going to establish any market presence with only 12 weeks of flying in a market at one time? It can take some time to build up a market, so if you’re only there for 12 weeks, that’s not giving much opportunity. Jude’s secret weapon here is the Global Distribution Systems (GDS). Sun Country participates in the GDS unlike his previous employer, Allegiant. With that, he believes the airline can find enough demand for its flights and have a shorter window of time needed. Right now, Sun Country gives its lowest fares to the GDS, but that may not always be the case. Still, having a presence will be key in Jude’s plan.

The second question is the one I asked Jude directly… what do you do in September? It’s easy to talk about where to put planes during peak seasons, but there’s really no market that has a peak in September. You can’t ground the airplanes because they’re just too expensive and revenue has to come in to pay for them. So what’s Jude’s plan? Well, he said some markets are always decent, like Las Vegas, LA, and New York. His idea seems to be to pull back the airline to fly as little as possible during that lean time and then stick with markets that have the best demand.

In theory, this idea of “The Endless Summer,” chasing demand, sounds really appealing. Sun Country truly becomes a “spill” carrier that’s not stealing share from existing airlines. It’s just stimulating the market and scraping the passengers that the big guys can’t serve anyway. But it’s also a logistical nightmare to manage. I’m not convinced demand will build as quickly as Jude hopes either. Then again, what’s a better option?

There’s no question Sun Country has to get its costs down. Jude’s plan is to get unit costs toward 6.5 cents ex-fuel, still roughly a penny more than the other ULCCs. He’s ok with that, because he says that today on the few markets where Sun Country competes with Spirit and Frontier, Sun Country gets a significant fare premium. His goal is to figure out how to retain that while also squeezing out costs. How will this differ from other ULCCs?

  • The airline is going to keep what Jude kept calling “Minnesota Nice” as part of the brand. He wants that friendly Midwestern customer service to remain and thrive.
  • While he is looking to charge for a lot of things like baggage, meals, and seat assignments, he’s going a bit softer by not charging for water/sodas.
  • More seats will be put onboard, but seat pitch will be cut down only to 30.5 inches, well above what the other ULCCs offer.
  • The airline will continue to have First Class, though it’ll have fewer amenities and there will be fewer seats. (Jude came in thinking he would get rid of it entirely, but the team convinced him there’s value there.)
  • Sun Country runs a great operation today (99.9 percent dispatch reliability with on-time performance in the low to mid 80 percent range) and it will keep it running well. The airline won’t run its airplanes as hard as the other ULCCs,so there will be more slack in the system. That adds some costs, but he understands the importance of operational integrity (which is funny since he was COO at Allegiant)

You add all that up and costs are somewhat higher than the guys at the bottom, but they’re still well below the legacy carriers. Sun Country becomes not only an airline that people want to fly but also one that can make money with some kind of revenue premium over the Spirits of the world.

This is a different kind of ULCC model and one that comes with risks, but as Jude notes, the biggest risk is doing nothing because the model today just isn’t working. Still, it will take time for the route network to change and that means the airline is vulnerable. When I asked, Jude conceded that if Delta woke up and decided to focus itself on killing Sun Country, it could probably be successful. But Delta probably prefers Sun Country to Southwest or someone else filling the vacuum right now. And since Sun Country doesn’t seem to have huge aspirations, it’s possible the airline can survive long enough to remake itself into a sustainably-profitable airline. At least that’s the case if this model actually works.

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17 Responses to Sun Country Dreams of Chasing Demand Through The Endless Summer

  1. A says:

    “Jude conceded that if Delta woke up and decided to focus itself on killing Sun Country, it could probably be successful.”

    Flying out of MSP my experience is SY is usually par or more expensive than DL on advance purchases. Last minute walk-up they may be cheaper but it’s marginal. The benefit that I see of SY is that if you want to go to a “Sun Country” destination they are always direct whereas with DL there are many spots in the Caribbean requiring a visit to ATL. WN is similar where DL is not letting them undercut them on fares in this market. Again, SY wins because they go everywhere direct where WN requires at stop at MDW for just about everything out of MSP. So in that sense Jude is missing the point, even if he’s hitting the target. Being nimble to bounce in and do a direct route where the competition requires a layover is huge and people will take that over the connection any day providing the fare difference is negligible.

  2. Kilroy says:

    So Sun Country’s maintenance crews get tons of overtime in the shoulder seasons like September, I presume?

    To what extent do airlines choose to do A/B/C/D checks a little earlier than necessary in order to maximize the number of planes they have in service during peak season? Is there an all-out push to get as many planes as possible out of the MX hangars and into operations for Thanksgiving & Christmas operations?

    Also, I agree that market presence is going to be an issue, because very few potential customers outside of Minnesota have even heard of Sun Country. Then again, if Sun Country shows up in the Expedia/Orbitz/Kayak results and the price and schedule are right, people will probably be willing to give them a shot.

    • CF says:

      Kilroy – That’s pretty standard. Airlines will save maintenance for off peak seasons as much as they can. That’s another reason why you see so little work on interior conversions during the summer. Hawaiian, for example, stopped doing conversions to the new First Class as spring ended.
      It’ll start again in the Fall when there’s more slack in the system.

      • Kilroy says:

        Thanks. That’s what I figured, but didn’t know how much that actually happened in practice.

  3. Tim Dunn says:

    Use of GDSs is a big differentiator below SY and other low cost carriers – and allows them to flit in and out of markets as demand increases; using GDSs eliminates the need to build market presence.

    The bigger issue is that there isn’t much gate space or slots in many of the largest airports at peak season; if demand is high, carriers that have access at those airports are going to use it. SY can go to smaller secondary airports but that sort of defeats the purpose of chasing demand.

    SY and Jude seem to be trying to split the difference between low cost models and I’m not sure the market will be perceptive enough to see the difference or willing to pay for the few distinctives esp. if they aren’t terribly loyal to many markets.

    As always in the airline industry there will be another case study for someone to learn from.

    • Re: Gate Space.. Depends how flexible you’re willing to be. I bet SY could find space to operate out of JFK, but they’d have to be flying during the mornings. There probably are these little nooks and crannies that you can fit into at all airports.

      • Tim Dunn says:

        the issue is that SY has to find carriers that are willing to lease gates since most gates are already under leases… most airports including JFK do not have very many gates that the airport itself controls and are available for short-term usage.

        • I forget the details but aren’t airports required to make gate space available as a condition of receiving federal funds?

          That’s the whole crux of DL at DAL.

          Sent from my computer that moonlights as a phone.

  4. Rory says:

    “The second question is the one I asked Jude directly… what do you do in September? It’s easy to talk about where to put planes during peak seasons, but there’s really no market that has a peak in September. You can’t ground the airplanes because they’re just too expensive and revenue has to come in to pay for them.”

    Well, not all of your aircraft, but don’t Ryanair seem to manage with a sizeable proportion of their fleet parked or in maintenance for parts of the Europen winter?

    • CF says:

      Rory – Yes indeed, and Ryanair makes a whole lot less money in the winter than in the summer. That works when you make outstanding returns in the summer, but Sun Country doesn’t have that luxury.

      • TB says:

        Found it odd that Bricker didn’t at least make reference to the substantial amount of college charters that SY does in September (and could do more with more aircraft).

        Some other random thoughts:

        1.) Is the current business model really that far off from being successful? They have a (small) loyal customer base. Bricker has already conceded the value in not abandoning them — although he might anyway somewhere down the road. There are opportunities for cutting more costs (gate agents and reservations outsourcing), but largely, my suspicion has been that SY’s biggest need is to grow. There are oodles and oodles of fixed costs that SY incurs merely by being an airline — safety programs, sufficient management, asset maintenance, etc. Would the costs not simply go down on a CASM basis if they just add (a lot) of planes and flights? Not arguing against his flexible flight model but I’m curious how broken he thinks the current model is. Also, as some people in other comments, premium economy and Wi-Fi are ways to differentiate the product (and are ways to generate revenue that G4 never had).

        2.) What has Jude learned from his Allegiant days? Sunny has had its fair share of operational reliability issues over the years and now seems successful(ish) in part because of solving those issues. Allegiant isn’t in the news every day anymore but operational reliability is not at all a hallmark of G4’s success — just look at their slew of cancelled flights on their website at any point in time. His recent comments suggest that he knows both of those facts, and not charging for soda is a small (and largely inexpensive from a cost point of view) compromise on his previous values. GDS is another example of that — how many people had never heard of Sun Country until they searched JFK-MSP on Expedia?

        As with everything, let’s see how it plays out. Things are rarely as bad as everybody fears nor are they ever as good as everybody hopes.

        • CF says:

          TB – If you’re talking about college football charters, that’s maybe two days a week. That’s not going to support you nearly enough.

          As for the current business model being successful, I think it isn’t far off… if you look only at winter in Minneapolis. The problem is you have another 3 quarters of the year, and yes, it’s pretty far off from making that work. Costs are too high and revenues aren’t high enough much of the year either. There’s a lot of work to be done.

  5. Mark says:

    All they have to do is deploy their planes on trunk hub-hub routes for legacy airlines to soak up enough passengers to fill their planes. BOS LAX could probably double in industry capacity and still run fairly decent loads. Las Vegas and Florida are a bloodbath as mentioned and probably not even worth them trying to park their planes on those routes in shoulder periods.

    • Sunny leveson-jones says:

      And get themselves killed by the big guys? seriously doing crap like that is the fastest way to get you killed in the industry today

  6. PF says:

    I hope it works for Sun Country, and wish the employees well. But if it doesn’t after a reasonable trial period, maybe SWA will be ready for to acquire another airline (and their -800’s).

  7. Ben in DC says:

    I like the other ideas they were considering, like a premium economy section and wifi/streaming entertainment. I didn’t catch if either was a sure thing, but those will help differentiate them from the ULCCs.

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