Sun Country Fortifies Its Operation With 2023 Growth Plans

Sun Country

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

BTS DB1B data via Cirium

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.

13 comments on “Sun Country Fortifies Its Operation With 2023 Growth Plans

    1. SEAN – Funny you should mention that. Grant and I talked about that as well. He basically said that there is a ton of leisure traffic on that route, and Spirit already flies it and does very well. So if Sun Country wants to be the leisure airline of choice, it needs to serve a market like that. It’s funny, because I assumed it stayed away because of not wanting to anger Delta, but it sounds like the calculus on this route was more about MSP and Spirit than anything else.

      1. Oh, that was a surprise! I completely forgot about Spirit being there as that is one of Delta’s backbone routes.

        I do wonder though if Delta gets the “Lionshare” of the “Viking” traffic

  1. Looks like a smart operator to me. Reminds me somewhat of how Allegiant handles Destin.

    Leisure fares on 3 and 4 day weekends with relatively short non-stop flights = winner.

    Rapid City travel demand has skyrocketed and with good reason as just one example.

  2. Curious if Sun Country has tried / could do more to generate inbound leisure demand to MSP during the summer. All those lakes are pretty nice summer getaways if you’re coming from their warm weather destinations. I know that would be a lot of work/time/money to up your brand ID (and MN as a vacation destination) in all those mid/small markets, but feels like there might be some room to grow there.

  3. I’m confused about the blue dots on the chart. Are those markets operated by other airlines and not Sun Country?

    1. Bill – Not necessarily. Those are just markets that Sun Country doesn’t operate. Some have service on other airlines but some are just unserved with the PDEW based on connecting traffic.

  4. This is an interesting study on a unique decision by Sun Country. It reminds me of something Air Holland tried in Amsterdam in the late 90s, trying to time up charter operations to compliment service in an effort to lower costs to counter KLM. I was working at Air Holland at the time and it was a bold strategy that showed quite a lot of promise.

    I think the fine folks of Sun Country have something here and I wish them the best.

    -Luuk

  5. Brett:

    Worth noting that much of Sun Country’s turnaround/growth/re-brand has come under the leadership of Jude Bricker who came up in the industry with Allegiant. They are taking a similar playbook much like that of Avelo, and perhaps along the lines of Breeze too. Unlike in the past, Sun Country is not trying to be everything to everyone, they are picking and choosing their audience and it is allowing them to succeed.

  6. I applaud them for their creativity. Seems like every px on one of those charter returns is basically free money. Good for them!

  7. They used to fly MSP-AUS but flying to CUN meant needing to use the main terminal rather than the ULCC one, and the main terminal is about at capacity. Interestingly, this means DL has had a monopoly on MSP for a bit.

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