COVID-19 Recovery – How Sun Country Has Bounced Back

As Sun Country’s CEO says that sales are back to pre-COVID levels and that the second quarter will be all about leisure growth, we see that the carrier will operate 82 routes this year. However, it has understandably retreated back to its Minneapolis core.

Sun Country B737-800
Sun Country’s CEO says that sales are back to pre-COVID levels. Photo: Getty Images.

Sun Country is the US’ 11th-largest domestic airline. It expects nearly 3.7 million seats this year, which will be its second-best year to date.

Growth is very much on Sun Country’s agenda, helped as it has been by its recent initial public offering (IPO). But its confidence has also been boosted by sales coming back, although at what fare levels for its scheduled operation is a different story. As the carrier’s CEO, Jude Bricker, said in a recent interview:

“For the first time since the COVID crisis came, we’ve been able to get sales back to pre-COVID levels.”

Sun Country's routes in 2021
Sun Country has 82 routes this year, with over one-quarter international. Image: GCMap.

Sun Country has understandably relied on freight, which now represents 25% of its flying. Freight, Bricker says, provides “a very stable line” which “helps us to be a better airline as a whole”. And while freight and charters will be important going forward, attention is increasingly turning back to leisure travel, the core of the airline.

“The growth story in the second quarter [of this year] for us will be the recovery of our leisure business, and we’re seeing that in our bookings today.”

Sun Country B737-800
2019 was key for Sun Country’s shift away from Minneapolis, although it kept adding routes from its home airport too. Photo: Sun Country via Wikimedia.

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Not just Minneapolis

The year 2019 was crucial in Sun Country’s expansion strategy. It moved away from its core, Minneapolis, in a way that it never had before, with just shy of one million seats not touching the Minnesota airport. However, its home seats still saw 78% of its total, just down from highs of 88%-95% seen since 2015.

Sun Country growth
The year 2019 was key for Sun Country’s non-Minneapolis growth, although this current year will see its second-highest volume. Source: OAG Schedules Analyzer.

2019 key for non-Minneapolis

Sun Country’s capacity in 2019 grew by 37% year-on-year on the back of a 42% increase in routes. Its route map saw 105 routes in all, up from 74, with expansion both away from Minneapolis and from it. Eight airports were added to its network, including Chicago O’Hare, Newark, Philadelphia, Redmond, and Sacramento. As is always the case, not all worked.

One impact of coronavirus has been to revert back to its Minneapolis foundation, which in 2021 sees 89% of its seats from the airport. Indeed, its Minneapolis offering is nearly at 2019 level, with non-Minneapolis capacity – still the second-highest to date – dragging down its total.

Sun Country B737s
Minneapolis has nearly nine in ten Sun Country’s seats this year. Source: Getty Images.

82 routes in 2021

Sun Country has 82 routes this year, with 58 to/from Minneapolis. Nine of the carrier’s 19 routes that will be added to its network this year are from Minneapolis: Cincinnati; Fairbanks; Hartford; Houston Intercontinental; Indianapolis; Jackson Hole; Kalispell; Orange County; and Raleigh Durham. All start in May.

Despite Mexico and the Caribbean suffering because of restrictions on re-entering the US, international routes make up over one-quarter (27%) of its total this year. At 2,618 miles, Minneapolis – Aruba is by far its longest international route, and one of 14 from its home airport.

Sun Country's top routes in 2021
Only one non-Minneapolis route falls into Sun Country’s top-10 routes this year. Source: OAG Schedules Analyzer.

July now the top month

Despite the importance of snowbirds for Sun Country, the carrier’s seasonality isn’t as extreme as some may think.

Sun Country's seasonality
While March was Sun Country’s peak month, it’s now July. Source: OAG Schedules Analyzer.

September has often been the lowest month, with March the peak. That began to change in 2019, coinciding with the growth away from Minneapolis. While September remained the bottom month, July became top, with this the case for 2021, too, even as the difference between the two months grows once again.