This week, I crossed another airline off my list with a dedicated trip to Minneapolis to see what all the Sun Country hype is about. For a long time, Sun Country has appealed to me. First, I always lean toward the lesser-known when choosing favorites (All of my friend’s favorite baseball players growing up were David Ortiz. Mine was Bill Mueller). It is more than that, though. Their market versatility is truly unmatched by any other carrier. Sun Country was, for a time, the only profitable airline during the worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and over the past five years, has grown more robust than ever, mainly in part due to:
In 2018, the airline began restructuring as an ultra-low-cost carrier.
Strong network with a Minneapolis hub and a healthy mix of point-to-point routes.
Extensive charter operations, which include several dedicated contracts. When Major League Soccer returned to play, they sought a league-wide charter contract that Sun Country still holds. They carry many other sports teams, plus casino and military charters.
In December 2019, Amazon and Sun Country partnered to operate a fleet of Boeing 737-800BCFs (Boeing Converted Freighter) on behalf of the conglomerate distributor. Today, they operate 12 of these aircraft to airports across the country.
In 2022, Sun Country even ventured into the Essential Air Service (EAS) world. After Eau Claire, WI lost its EAS service with SkyWest due to the pilot shortage; Sun Country stepped in. With approved exemptions to the EAS minimum standards, Sun Country could apply its less-than-daily business model, allowing them to add Orlando-MCO and Fort Myers.
With this product diversity, I have said for years that Sun Country would be atop my list of desired employers if I were a pilot. How cool would it be to fly passengers, leave to pick up an NCAA football team, and then finish the week running boxes of hair dryers to Karens? Combine a pretty attractive set of liveries painted on my favorite aircraft…
…it is a no-brainer. When I told friends about my expedition, most were surprised I had not flown them. This was not for lack of effort; I had tried several times but could not get the times to line up for a single-day trip. Sun Country appears to split most of its network into waves to optimize connecting traffic, with eastbound flights leaving early in the morning, returning to MSP around midday before continuing to the west coast in the evening. Some destinations are an exception - for example; they serve Orlando-MCO three times per day.
To get the whole experience, I departed from Newark and arrived back at New York-JFK (where they only re-launched seasonal service this spring). The total amount round trip? A whopping $58. Unfortunately, Terminal B at EWR leaves much to be desired, particularly TSA PreCheck and a Dunkin’. However, this terminal is the next in the Greater New York City area set to be rebuilt. According to OAG data, Sun Country is a three-star airline in terms of the latest on-time performance data (which translates to pretty good), and my flights' on-time history indicated no reason for concern. The gate space was adequate for our fully booked 186-seat aircraft, and the contracted ground crew seemed to run a tight ship (which can be a problem occasionally when handling is outsourced). Boarding was uneventful; we pushed off the gate quickly, departing to Minneapolis ahead of schedule.
As is often the case, I did not think about writing about my trip until it was too late (I was on the LIRR to Grand Central daydreaming when I thought of it), so I do not have many pictures to complement my perspectives. Next week, I have a trip that I will be more prepared for, but for now, you will have to take me at my word. I was very impressed with Sun Country's cabin. However, I'm not sure if they have their entire fleet outfitted. A colleague of mine mentioned a very different experience on one of Sun Country's older aircraft, leading me to believe they are in mid-transition. Compared to competitors in the same ultra-low-cost carrier segment, the product is truly unmatched - equipped with reclining seats and USB ports (that you do not have to pay for). I am 6'1", yet I still had plenty of legroom with comfortable seats.
This brings me to my next point; the customer journey reminded me much of Southwest. Cabin seating was similarly configured. However, there was no snack service on either trip - only drinks. Terminal 2, home of Sun Country's central hub at Minneapolis-St. Paul reminded me of the smaller secondary airports where Southwest has built hub-and-spoke networks. A smaller setup without requiring a terminal change or lengthy walks is ideal for the connecting passenger as it minimizes the necessary time between flights and is overall more convenient. The aesthetic was relatively modern, with nice carpet, waiting areas, and adequate amenities. Sun Country is not the only carrier in Terminal 2 as they share with Allegiant, Condor, Frontier, Icelandair, JetBlue, and Southwest. However, their presence is limited, and Sun Country is the big dog.
Returning to New York-JFK the following day was a nice change as I prefer here over Newark. During my FAA internship in 2013, I remember that Sun Country operated out of the JFK International Air Terminal (Terminal 4). Upon their return, it appears that Terminal 7 is a much better fit for them. Same as the day before, the return flight was utterly full, comprised chiefly of what seemed like Minneapolis residents. Arriving from the west, regardless of the configuration, the approach into New York-JFK typically requires 10-15 extra minutes to set up for landing. The schedule appears to reflect this appropriately, as we landed ahead of schedule again at 10:09 AM local time. We deplaned at approximately 10:25, and at approximately 10:27, I was in line at Dunkies. It was funny that the aircraft that took me back to New York City continued to the airport where I work as a repositioning flight to pick up MLS' NYCFC, eventually bringing them to their away game in Charlotte. Small world!
What I learned
Essentially, I learned that you get more value out of a ticket on Sun Country than other competing ultra-low-cost carriers. Further, I do not need to fly non-stop when traveling. With this wonderful experience, I will look into Sun Country wherever my travels take me next. Most flights from the west coast arrive later in the evening, making connecting back to the east coast a difficult task in one shot - the east coast bank does not start up again until the following morning. However, I will say the airport's lodging was surprising and affordable, and the Mall of America was only one mile away.
You may be reading this and assuming this is just a case of confirmation bias. Still, I have always felt I do a good job objectively analyzing essential components of the customer journey. When writing these trip summaries, I aim not to bring to you travel blog content more than my overall business and experience analysis. There is much to be excited about at Sun Country right now, so I am a little worried they might become an acquisition target. Okay, maybe this part is a little personal - I wouldn't say I like consolidation and hope Sun Country grows organically. As this remains in question, one thing is for sure; I will be on another Sun Country flight in the (hopefully) not-too-distant future.