Sun Country Stakes Its Claim as Vacation King of Minnesota and Wisconsin

Sun Country

Sun Country built its entire business on people from the Minneapolis/St Paul area desperately needing to escape to warmer climates during the long, cold winter. Though it has tried to find other ways to make money in the summer and other cities where it could make money at other times, the airline wouldn’t exist without that winter-hating base. The airline is now expanding with several new routes, looking to not only deepen the loyalty in the Twin Cities but also spread it throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The new routes don’t begin for a long time. With the exception of Minneapolis-Milwaukee-Las Vegas which starts in August and isn’t something I’m talking about today, nothing starts until Thanksgiving. The latest doesn’t even start until February. Sun Country is laying its claim to the cold northern reaches of the country… by offering them nonstop warmth this winter.

Going Broad in Minneapolis/St Paul

The first part is maybe obvious, but then again, maybe not. Sun Country is growing its number of winter destinations from Minneapolis/St Paul. Here’s the list.

  • Bozeman – 2x weekly through the winter (extended from the summer schedule)
  • Grand Cayman – Saturdays starting December 18
  • Phoenix/Mesa – 4x weekly starting November 24
  • Providenciales (Turks and Caicos) – Saturdays starting December 18
  • Punta Gorda – 2x weekly starting December 10
  • St Petersburg/Clearwater – 4x weekly starting November 25

Some of these wouldn’t even be worth a second look. Weekly flights to Grand Cayman and Turks and Caicos? Yeah, sure, that makes sense. And extending Bozeman through the winter? Ok, everyone loves Bozeman these days. But it’s the other three that grabbed me.

Phoenix/Mesa, Punta Gorda, and St Pete are all Allegiant bases, and Allegiant does not fly to Minneapolis. Sun Country’s CEO Jude Bricker used to be at Allegiant, and he knows these places well, but it seems like an odd choice for Sun Country. After all, Sun Country flies to the primary airports in each of these regions. Phoenix gets 2x daily in the winter, Tampa gets 3x daily, and Fort Myers gets up to 4x daily or more. That is a substantial amount of capacity, so why bother flying to the secondary markets instead of just adding more to the primaries?

One obvious reason is Delta. Delta has more flights than Sun Country in each of these markets. Spirit and Southwest are on these routes as well, with American in Phoenix and Frontier in Tampa. All those people from the Twin Cities aren’t looking to just go to the main cities. Plenty of them are going to places that are closer to the secondary airports.

The frequency is low, but it’s complementary to the primary airport service, and it can give Sun Country a leg up as people look to travel. On top of that, it might be able to get higher fares without competition. That remains to be seen. Might as well get in there before Allegiant decides to fly the routes.

Sun Country Plants Its Flag in a Broader Territory

Prior to this week’s adds, Sun Country had only three routes scheduled for early 2022 that didn’t touch Minneapolis/St Paul. Those were a single flight from its legacy summer operation at Dallas/Fort Worth to Cancun along with Madison and St Louis to Fort Myers. Sun Country had service from Madison to other Florida spots, but it has abandoned them in favor of broadening its reach into Fort Myers and Phoenix from the Upper Midwest.

The new routes are concentrated in Phoenix and Fort Myers, not Phoenix/Mesa and Punta Gorda, I should note. Those secondary airports would be too thin for Sun Country, so it’ll focus on the primary airports.

  • Duluth – 2x weekly to both Phoenix and Fort Myers starting December 17
  • Green Bay – 2x weekly to both Phoenix and Fort Myers starting December 16
  • Madison – 2x weekly to Phoenix starting December 16
  • Milwaukee – 2x weekly to both Phoenix and Fort Myers starting December 15
  • Rochester – 2x weekly to both Phoenix and Fort Myers starting February 3

This is a pretty transparent choice of markets. If you look at the 2019 passenger numbers in Cirium, this is almost entirely a rundown of the top origin markets from both Minnesota and Wisconsin. The two notables that were left out? That’d be Appleton and St Cloud. Why? Well, wouldn’t you know that those are served by Allegiant from Phoenix/Mesa and Punta Gorda? This is a pretty clear effort by Sun Country to coexist.

I like these moves. I don’t know if they’ll all work, but it’s a pretty clear understanding by Sun Country of what it can consider to be its home market. It also deftly avoids having to compete with Allegiant, presumably signaling that it is hoping to keep the peace.

18 comments on “Sun Country Stakes Its Claim as Vacation King of Minnesota and Wisconsin

  1. Pre-pandemic, MSN was an airport punching way above it’s weight. UA had service to every hub but IAH, AA was expanding, with routes to PHL and CLT added, and DL had just under 20 departures daily.

    In 2019, SY announced MSN-BOS/EWR/PDX/SEA/BNA in addition to it’s Florida routes. These were fairly short lived thanks to COVID, but I believe SEA returns later this year. With PHX, SY will be taking on American, who currently fly the route.

    MSN has been slower to recover than other WI airports, but it’ll be interesting to see how these new adds do.

    1. Madison had that much service for ONE reason. Epic Systems. It’s a software provider based in Madison that had HIGH volumes of business travel. That’s why Madison got flights to LA, SLC, SFO, and many other cities for business travel. A lot of that will be slower to return, but leisure stuff to Florida and Arizona should do ok.
      Also, the possessive of the word “it” is “its”, no apostrophe, which in this case “it’s” means “it is”, which is not what you mean here.

      1. Thanks Jason. That was very helpful. Maybe someday Cranky can add an edit function on here. Or I can stop trying to type on a phone. Either or…

  2. Is a preemptive strike on Allegiant worth opening 3 new stations for a total of 10 weekly flights (4, 4 and 2 at AZA, PIE and punta gorda)? That seems a little bonkers to me. I’d love to hear more of the rationale and data that supported that decision.

    On another note, the endless summer/winter image complete with the tagline “in search of the perfect RASM” is the greatest CF graphic of all time!

    1. They definitely seem to be trying to cover all the bases in West Central Florida, with service (in high season) at TPA, PIE, SRQ, PGD, and RSW. Surprised they didn’t go for Naples and Lakeland while they were at it.

      The more I think about PIE, the hungrier I get. No, wait, the more skeptical I get. I haven’t seen anything in the local media about incentives.

      I used to drive by both TPA and PIE on my daily commute and I just don’t see the driving difference between the two to any of the beach destinations as being that big of an advantage, especially in a non-COVID world where I’d anticipate a return to TPA having lower rental car rates than the smaller airports.

      But I’ve been wrong before.

      1. forgot: Could be lower landing fees at PIE be enough to make the numbers work or get them close enough to make keeping Allegiant off the route worth it?

      2. I’m with you on PIE. It’s a whopping 20 minutes across the Howard Frankland bridge / 275 from TPA to PIE so those airports seem mutually exclusive to me.

        Nobody ever said “I was going to go to Clearwater Beach but I couldn’t get a flight into PIE.”

    2. Bill – Sun Country opening a station isn’t really a big deal. They do that all the time. Heck, they’re opening Turks and Caicos for one weekly flight. It’s all outsourced on the ground for such a small station anyway. It doesn’t cost them much to do it.

      1. That makes more sense. I probably should have assumed that. I’m still not sure I’d do it though!

        I just realized it feels a little like the VFR version of the old NW Midwest domination strategy. I’d they add flights to Indy, well, there ya go!

      2. The only station SY doesn’t outsource is MSP. And they tried that with a couple different ground handlers before giving up and taking it back in house. PGD is a preemptive move to keep G4 from trying to flying the routes. Having worked in the ground handling game, there are a lot of bottom feeders that’ll agree to turn your plane cheap.

  3. Lots of Minnesotans and Wisconsinites now live in or spend their winters in Arizona and Florida, and a very sizeable base of snowbirds lives in the East Valley near Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport (AZA). There are even branches of the Mayo Clinic in both states. I have ties to the upper midwest, as one of my brothers lives in Madison, and my other brother recently relocated to Florida from the St. Paul area.

  4. I wonder if Sun Country’s Amazon business is giving it some more profit which is allowing them to take some more risks on the passenger side?

    The Amazon side of the house has been growing well, and without much fanfare or trouble.

  5. I can’t help but think that, in a year or so, it will be obvious that there are too many new leisure-oriented flights in America. Perhaps it will depend on jet fuel prices.

    In the meantime, here’s your fun fact for the day: did you know there’s a new Kimpton hotel in Bozeman? So maybe it’s not just the airlines who are over-chasing leisure travellers.

  6. The one which doesn’t fit is Milwaukee. MSN, RST, DLH, GRB all have little to no nonstop service to sun markets, and flying a few times per week can work. More than few people are willing to mold their schedule to the flight schedule. But Milwaukee has multiple nonstops 7 days per week to PHX and RSW — Vegas too. Hopefully enough people find a reason to choose them so they survive at MKE and may someday add less-than-daily flights to airports without peak-season nonstop competition like Tucson, New Orleans, Portland, San Antonio, Charleston.

  7. For those not familiar with that part of Florida, in a drive of ~170 miles / 2.5 hours and a few bucks in bridge tolls (or ~150 miles / 2 hours if you terminate in Fort Myers instead of Naples), one can pass the following airports:
    * TPA (Tampa)
    * PIE (St Pete)
    * SRQ (Sarasota-Bradenton)
    * PGD (Punta Gorda)
    * RSW (Fort Myers)
    * APF (Naples)
    Obviously few people are going to fly into TPA and driven down to Fort Myers, or vice versa, but nonetheless… That is a LOT of airports with significant commercial service in relatively close proximity, with each airport traditionally having its “niche” (TPA as more of the big city airport, PIE and more recently PGD as the ULCC airports, etc).

    I have family who lives a similar distance from TPA/PIE and PGD. They like TPA and often fly out of it often, but fly out of PIE very rarely, and SRQ almost never, as despite being ~20 or 30 minutes closer to them, until very recently SRQ had few nonstops and very high fares. RSW (Fort Myers) isn’t even considered by them due to distance.

    However, my family really, really, REALLY likes PGD, and practically swears by Allegiant flights out of there, despite my best efforts to steer them away from Allegiant. It’s a very convenient small airport to use, and they can usually use the a la carte nature of Allegiant’s pricing model to get cheap all-in fares, paying for only what they want, so I get it even if it’s not for me. Point being, however, that PGD’s convenience, when combined with an attractive fare structure, makes it pretty attractive for the FL locals, and I’m sure for the tourists seeking to increase their risk of skin cancer as well.

      1. Yup. Surprisingly cheap, only a few bucks round trip for such a long causeway. Great views of the windsurfers, kitesurfers, and fishermen as well.

        I’m not sure if there are other toll bridges along that route, as I don’t think I’ve ever driven all the way to Fort Myers or Naples.

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