Sun Country has announced its summer 2023 plans, and the airline is not straying from its Minneapolis/St Paul home. It will add 15 new (or resumed) destinations as the airline continues to try to mine deeper and deeper into smaller routes from MSP. I spoke with Sun Country Chief Revenue Officer Grant Whitney to learn more about this plan.
On the surface, Grant says Sun Country “aspires to be the leisure airline of choice in the Twin Cities.” But there are also some other fascinating reasons why these markets were chosen. Every single one of them has a tie in some way to the airline’s cargo and/or charter service.
All routes are brand new to Sun Country unless otherwise noted:
- Atlantic City – 2x weekly from May 1
- Charlotte – 2x weekly from Apr 13
- Columbus – 2x weekly from May 4
- Colorado Springs – 2x weekly from Jun 8
- Detroit – 2x weekly from May 5, 4x weekly from May 29
- Kansas City – 2x weekly from May 29
- Louisville – 2x weekly from May 4
- Milwaukee – 2x weekly from May 5 (briefly flew in summer 2021)
- New York/JFK – 4x weekly from Apr 13 (last flown in Feb 2019)
- Omaha – 2x weekly from May 26
- Rapid City – 2x weekly from Jun 19
- Richmond – 2x weekly from May 19
- St Louis – 2x weekly from May 22 (last flew in summer 2021)
- Traverse City – 2x weekly from Jun 16
- Wilmington (NC) – 2x weekly from Jun 1
Sun Country has always had a tougher time figuring out what to do in summer. The MSP market goes absolutely insane in the first quarter when snow-drenched Minnesotans desperately look for any place with a temperature that doesn’t have a negative sign in front of it. Sun Country fills its planes going to some pretty exotic destinations all through the southern US, Mexico, Caribbean, and Central America. But once winter ends and the mosquitoes come out, Minnesotans hide in their homes in fear of being eaten alive.
Either that, or maybe they just don’t care about going to the beach when they can hang out by the lake. Sure, there is demand for some flying, and Sun Country can serve that by flying east-west more, but it’s not the same. So Sun Country has to figure out what to do with those airplanes.
Trying to focus on that Twin Cities leisure market plan was going to drive the decisions, but just look at how Sun Country evolves with this new service.
MSP Q2 2022 Markets by Passengers and Distance
Overall, you can see that the new routes are mid- to small-size destinations that are mostly shorter-haul. That’s really the lowest hanging fruit that remains, and it’s not that low. You’re probably wondering about those blue dots that look to be bigger, but those markets aren’t served for one reason or another.
- Atlanta – Do not anger Mother Delta, I assume
- Chicago/Midway – Already serving O’Hare
- New York/LaGuardia and Washington/National – No slots
- Austin – Too expensive
Austin is too expensive? On that last point only, I was able to get some clarification from Grant Whitney. He explained that Sun Country does fly to Cancún from Austin, and it uses the international facilities which are pricey. To add MSP it’s tough because the “costs that go along with Austin are pretty high.” Besides, Grant says they have been “very happy” with how San Antonio has performed, and that has served those coming from Minnesota well enough, even though it’s not a “perfect proxy.”
Still, there are plenty of smaller blue dots on that chart above, so how did they pick these particular routes? I asked Grant about that as well.
Overall, Sun Country was looking for places that would be appealing weekend destinations for the summer. As you can see, most of these operate 2x weekly. That’s usually either on a pattern of Fri/Mon or Thu/Sun, so it’s not a lot of capacity.
But you cannot underestimate the power of the charter business. I’ll lift this slide from the airline’s most recent investor presentation.
Grant explained to me that every one of these is a destination for their “track charters” which are regular operations flown for Caesars. Does it matter? Yes. “In this recent environment,” Grant continued, “getting ground handling support in these stations has been harder because of the pandemic.” Now Sun Country can develop a better relationship based on higher volume which will ensure better service.
It’s even more than that. This also helps Sun Country improve crew pairings and aircraft routings since the airplanes and crews can move back and forth between charter and scheduled service seamlessly. The crews can also move back and forth between scheduled flying and the Amazon cargo service, something that will benefit Richmond more than most, apparently.
But here’s where it gets really interesting. The deal with Major League Soccer requires schedules to be published and delivered to Sun Country well in advance. Normally in a charter world, Sun Country would fly a plane into a city empty, pick up a team, and take them to their destination. Now that Sun Country will be up to serving 23 of the 26 US MLS cities (adding Charlotte, Columbus, Kansas City, and St Louis in this round), it will be able to bring the airplanes in as scheduled service, then turn around and take the teams out.
I wanted to know how that works, because there’s no way that Sun Country can know that teams will travel every Friday and every Monday. And Grant agreed that won’t happen. Instead, Sun Country can launch service in these markets on a regular scheduled basis. Then when it knows its MLS schedule — still well in advance of travel to allow for a long enough booking window — it can add extra frequencies to line up with when the charters will operate, giving it a more appealing schedule with little additional cost.
In that sense, this plan sounds heavily influenced by the operation, but with the variable costs so low to operate some of these, Sun Country has little to lose. And Grant says he is very bullish that all of these markets will work.
There’s no question Sun Country has developed into a really fascinating hybrid type of airline that is really pushing its ability to flex in a way that allows it to reduce costs and mint money. It’s been fun to watch.