Playing To The Local Market: Sun Country’s Growth In The Midwest

Sun Country Airlines is a Minneapolis-based low-cost airline to the local community. However, one of the airline’s big moves in 2021 included adding several new cities to its network across the Midwest, primarily in North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. While not every route has launched yet, they are all broadly part of the airline’s ongoing network development and strategy. Reflecting on these moves, Simple Flying spoke with Grant Whitney, Sun Country’s Chief Revenue Officer.

Sun Country B737-800
Sun Country Airlines has made building relationships with the local market a key focus in more than just Minneapolis. Photo: Getty Images.

Sun Country’s expansion in the Upper Midwest

In April 2021, Sun Country Airlines announced a sizable expansion from more airports in the Upper Midwest. This includes:

  • Duluth International Airport (DLH)
  • Green Bay Austin Straubel International Airport (GRB)
  • Dane County Regional Airport (MSN)
  • Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport (MKE)
  • Rochester International Airport (RST)
  • Williston Basin International Airport (XWA)

Rochester, Green Bay, and Duluth got service to Phoenix (PHX) and Ft. Myers (RSW). Madison got service to Phoenix. Milwaukee was a big winner with service to Minneapolis (MSP), Cancun (CUN), Las Vegas (LAS), RSW, and PHX. Green Bay later also received service to MSP. In North Dakota, Sun Country added fall service from Williston to LAS.

Rochester and Duluth were part of the Sun Country network, though in a very different way. Sun Country operates a partnership with Landline. Through this, the airline offers motorcoach connections to various smaller destinations near Minneapolis. Other Landline cities include St. Cloud and Brainerd in Minnesota and La Crosse and Eau Claire in Wisconsin.

Sun Country Boeing 737
Sun Country has traditionally had a Minneapolis-focused network. In 2021, the airline started expanding and thinking about markets outside of MSP in the upper Midwest. Photo: Sun Country Airlines

A play to local markets

To the casual eye, the flights from Ft. Myers and Phoenix to those five destinations may seem more like destinations for travelers from Phoenix and South Florida. However, the case is the opposite. All five of those destinations have strong traffic flows to Arizona and Florida. As Mr. Whitney explained:

“As we built up into Duluth, Rochester, Green Bay, it’s really just keeping that same momentum: knowing the characteristics of the demand for folks who live up in this part of the world and then take it and then pushing it on a strategic basis.”

Much of this comes off the seasonality and strength of those markets. Minnesota and Wisconsin are unique in the sense that they have winter peaks. The first quarter is generally a strong one as winter-weary travelers plan getaways to visit snowbird relatives or a trip to the beach. Add in Spring Break, and January through March has a lot of promise. There is similarly strong demand in the fourth quarter, especially in November and December.

Playing To The Local Market: Sun Country’s Growth In The Midwest
Sun Country operates much of its network on a seasonal basis. Photo: Sun Country

As for this growth, Mr. Whitney sees it as part of a broader extension into local markets that integrates and works with the Sun Country ecosystem. Between the existing Minneapolis local market, Mr. Whitney added that Sun Country is growing strategically with the interest in developing a local traveler base outside of just Minneapolis. However, the Landline partnership also matters:

“It does speak to the value of our Landline partnership. While we may only serve Duluth nonstop twice a week, customers can optimize their itinerary coming back through or starting through Minneapolis with a Landline connection. So it actually just gets us really positive ability to grow the network, and really connecting those communities through Minneapolis in some cases as well.”

Playing To The Local Market: Sun Country’s Growth In The Midwest
Landline is about more than just a bus connection, but about building in more flexibility for non-Minneapolis-originating travelers to plan their itineraries. Photo: Sun Country Airlines

Williston, North Dakota: building the connections

While it may be easy to collectively view the Upper Midwest as a simple market with some seasonality, leisure-oriented travel, and demand to the same set of destinations, Williston helps disprove some of that. In western North Dakota, the traffic market is a little thinner, with more of a ranching style of life. The area is not populated with major urban centers and is characterized by lower population densities. Sun Country added a fall flight in 2021 to Las Vegas from Williston, which Mr. Whitney explained was strategic and made a lot of sense in the fall.

A traditionally thinner season for travel, one place that sees demand from a place like Williston is Las Vegas. Given what Mr. Whitney described as a lower opportunity cost during a leaner season, Sun Country tried it out, and in the process, made some huge connections with the local community. He specifically stated:

“A shout out to the Williston community. We worked very closely with the community, the airport, and we were able to work with them to set up a flight, that net for us was a success. It involved some definite engagement from the local market. But I give them credit for engaging us in a discussio,  being meaningful about the support they were willing to offer the flight, and…it met our expectations.”

Playing To The Local Market: Sun Country’s Growth In The Midwest
Sun Country’s aircraft are in an all-economy configuration and ideally suited for low-cost, leisure-oriented operations. Photo: Sun Country

Sun Country has not released its fall 2022 schedule yet (summer 2022 is out), so its future in Williston is currently not written in stone. However, this shows that Sun Country is more than willing to make relationships with communities that might be overlooked or underserved. Looking at a market like Rochester, or Duluth, or Williston, most passengers there have to connect through a major hub like Minneapolis, Chicago, or Denver with just a couple of limited options and, traditionally, are more expensive. Sun Country offers nonstop flights that are typically affordable to leisure destinations.

At the end of the day, the airline’s strategic moves in 2021 included expanding the Sun Country brand outside of just Minneapolis and a few pockets through the Landline connection. The airline shows its commitment by adding flights, expanding its network, and building relationships to sustain flights and tap into the local market.