2021 was a big year for Sun Country. After fully realizing its ultra-low-cost transformation and signing a deal with Amazon pre-crisis, the recovery allowed Sun Country to push full speed ahead with an initial public offering (IPO) and grow its fleet, thus allowing it to grow its network and add or announce a whopping 27 new airports. Simple Flying spoke with Grant Whitney, Sun Country’s Chief Revenue Officer, to learn more about what propelled this growth.
Sun Country’s big year of growth
Sun Country Airlines announced 27 new airports in 2021:
- Bradley International Airport (BDL) in Hartford, Connecticut
- John Wayne Airport (SNA) in Orange County, California
- George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) in Houston, Texas
- Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) in North Carolina
- Glacier Park International Airport (FCA) in Kalispell, Montana
- Fairbanks International Airport (FAI) in Alaska
- Jackson Hole Airport (JAC) in Wyoming
- Indianapolis International Airport (IND) in Indiana
- Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) in Kentucky
- Duluth International Airport (DLH) in Minnesota
- Owen Roberts International Airport (GCM) in Grand Cayman
- Green Bay Austin Straubel International Airport (GRB) in Wisconsin
- Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport (MKE) in Wisconsin
- Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport (AZA) in Arizona
- Punta Gorda Airport (PGD) in Arizona
- Rochester International Airport (RST) in Minnesota
- St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport (PIE) in Florida
- Providenciales International Airport (PLS) in Turks and Caicos
- Asheville Regional Airport (AVL) in North Carolina
- Palm Beach International Airport (PBI) in Florida
Seven new destinations were announced for 2022:
- Buffalo Niagara International Airport (BUF) in New York
- Burlington International Airport (BTV) in Vermont
- Charleston International Airport (CHS) in South Carolina
- Jacksonville International Airport (JAX) in Florida
- Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) in Pennsylvania
- Spokane International Airport (GEG) in Washington
- Vancouver International Airport (YVR) in Canada
Note that this is just a sampling of the various destinations Sun Country Airlines has added, and it is not representative of the overall new routes the airline launched in 2021 or has planned in 2022.
An inside look at the airline’s growth
Mr. Whitney stated the following on the airline’s growth in early 2021:
“We have a really good first quarter seasonality up here, especially north-south taking folks from colder northern climates to warmer southern climates, and so we really saw a lot of the demand that was principally at that point going to Florida. What we really wanted to do is build the network up here in Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where we sort of are the leisure carrier of choice. For us, it was really important just to get out in front of it and make sure that we’re continuing to build the network, get that out into the local market. We have really strong direct connections, communications with our customer base.”
In January, as the airline industry was preparing for a recovery boosted by the spread of vaccinations, Sun Country got ahead of the game and announced the first nine of the 20 new airports it would add in 2021. Those initial additions were focused around summer travel, mainly to top leisure destinations like Glacier Park, Jackson Hole, and Fairbanks, among others.
Outdoor leisure destinations have outperformed others throughout the crisis. Sun Country was not alone in adding new capacity to those destinations, but it had a strong foundation.
The Minnesota customer base is something that few airlines have gone after in earnest. Delta Air Lines has a hub in Minneapolis, and while it has made some moves to shore up against Sun Country, the overall might of Minneapolis is its focus as a connecting hub.
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A key focus was flexibility
While Sun Country was early in announcing significant growth, it had an eye on staying flexible. As Mr. Whitney explained, the airline knew that people were more comfortable booking closer to departure than before and that visibility on performance would only come later in comparison to pre-crisis operations:
“If the times changed, nobody’s going to hold it against you. If you say, “Hey, when we planned to do this, we forecast a certain reality in the future, that reality has changed. So we’re gonna have to change it.” So I think we felt like we had a strong enough direct communication line with our customers that it was the right thing to get us out there and show people we were building the network. We saw the leisure demand being pretty strong,, specifically in areas where seasonally the demand is typical – the west coast of Florida last winter was still very strong with all the news out there. We felt really good about the markets we put out into our network, and we’ve proven that all of them worked and met expectations.”
Sun Country has the luxury of being more nimble than some other airlines. It is much smaller than the likes of a carrier like Delta, and it has a much closer relationship and stake with the local community in Minneapolis. Another thing going for it is the overall model Sun Country operates.
Sun Country operates on a low-frequency, peak-day model. While it added 20 new cities, most only received service a few days a week, focused around peak leisure traveler days. This helps mitigate some of the risks for the airline to fill seats on the plane while also allowing it to be able to tailor its capacity and network to meet demand.
In the end, Sun Country ended up with a very successful 2021 schedule. Demand started to pick up from March, and it became clear that summer 2021 would be a much better season for travel than summer 2020. Leisure travel was one of the first to rebound and started to come back during summer 2020, particularly to outdoor leisure destinations. That success gave the airline confidence to continue to expand throughout the rest of the year and into summer 2022.
One of the key takeaways from 2021 is that Sun Country has an exceptionally strong bond with the local community, allowing it to be more flexible than other airlines. Based in Minneapolis, Sun Country has made its Minnesota-origination customer its key focus, and its growing schedules and network has made it clear that it is continuing to work and offer the most utility to these travelers.