Sun Country adds 12 routes amid ULCC transformation

Sun Country’s transformation to a ULCC is continuing apace.  It is fighting for survival.  It has changed in many ways, including fare structure, ancillary options to drive revenues, updated aircraft cabins, and embarked on fleet and fast network expansion, including Hawaii and across the Caribbean. 

Sun Country is fast growing since 2017 as part of its ULCC transformation

Sun Country’s routes in all of 2019. May include some airports, such as JFK, that are no longer served. Routes out of the image are to Honolulu and Anchorage. Source: OAG Mapper.

Most of all, it has cut costs.  In the past two years, its costs have reduced by 30%.  This is mainly from acquiring more B737-800s – rather than B737-700s – and increasing seat density to 183, up from 168.  It’ll increase this further to 186.  Now, it focuses on owning second-hand aircraft rather than leasing them.  Its move from -700s was already in play – but it has simply quickened since 2017, the year it was acquired by New York’s Apollo Global Management. By 2019, 738s flew 94% of Sun Country’s seats, up from 70% in 2015.

Sun Country's aircraft development in move to be ULCC with it all about 737-800s

Source: OAG Schedules Analyser

Sun Country is now less concerned about block hours per day

Like Allegiant – where Sun Country’s CEO worked for ten years – it focuses only on routes and times that make sense.  This reduces daily utilisation, which obviously isn’t so important for aircraft with lower ownership costs, but believes it has a positive impact on RASM.  The utilisation – CASM – RASM – LF balancing act is very interesting.

Sun Country expects to achieve CASM of six US cents or less, excluding fuel.  If it does, it’ll be competitive with Spirit and Allegiant, although this is before being stage-length-adjusted.  Its focus will then shift to RASM and TRASM. While scale is key to ULCCs, Sun Country doesn’t expect to be large: it anticipates about 50 aircraft. 

Sun Country’s Minneapolis focus

Sun Country grew very shallowly between 2015 and 2018, adding just over 400,000 seats.  No surprise given its background.  2019 marked a clear change from large network growth and additional aircraft. The declining focus of Minneapolis (MSP) is clear, at least on a percentage basis, especially since it embarked on its ULCC strategy in 2017.

Sun Country has grown fast in the last year from its ULCC transformation

Source: OAG Schedules Analyser.

Yet, ‘Minnesota’s hometown airline’ remains focused on MSP, with almost 900,000 seats added there since 2015 against 700,000 for non-MSP.  In 2019, non-MSP grew by nearly 2 1/2 times, although from a very low base. Sun Country grew by a respectable 22% at MSP.  MSP is, and will always be, crucial to Sun Country.

Sun Country's development towards a ULCC MSP and to other places

Source: OAG Schedules Analyser.

All but one of Sun Country’s top-10 routes touch MSP

Leisure travel and those working for small and medium enterprises – so are price-conscious – remain Sun Country’s focus, as reflected in its top-10 routes.  The inclusion of major cities is not surprising.  San Francisco, for example, saw 26 million visitors in 2018. Sun Country’s seats to Florida and Nevada have more than doubled since 2015, and now total 1.5 million – one-third of the airline’s total, up from 23% five years ago.

Sun Country's top 10 routes in 2019

Source: OAG Schedules Analyser.

The most notable differences in Sun Country’s airport network is the end of New York JFK – once the airline’s second-most served airport, with Newark now served; the decline of Cancun amid wider problems there; and Boston’s cuts, from both a big frequency decline and from becoming summer-seasonal. The primary gainers have been Las Vegas (12 routes in winter 2019), Nashville (four) and Phoenix (four).  Nashville only came online in 2018.

Sun Country is fast growing and changing to a ULCC

Source: OAG Schedules Analyser.

Sun Country adds 12 more routes for S20

Like many ULCCs, Sun Country often announces numerous new routes at the same time.  Yesterday was no different, with 12 more.  And, like Frontier, Spirit and Allegiant, it is increasingly focusing on low frequencies and seasonal service. It focuses on the absolute soft underbelly of major markets.

Route Weekly frequency Starts Lead-in fare one-way fare Already served?* (Airline**, WF)
Minneapolis – Baltimore 2, rising to 4 8 May $59 Yes (Delta, 27; Southwest, 13; Spirit, 7)
Minneapolis – Cleveland 2 29 May $59 Yes (Delta, 27)
Minneapolis – Portland, ME 2 18 June $69 No
Minneapolis – Bozeman, MT 2 3 June $89 Yes (Delta, 16)
Madison – Nashville 2 7 May $69 No
Madison – Boston 2 7 May $79 No
Madison – Newark 2 8 May $79 Yes (United, 14). La Guardia also served (Delta, 18)
Madison – Portland, OR 2 3 June $99 No
Madison – Seattle 2 8 May $99 No
Dallas Fort Worth – Liberia 1 13 June $174 Yes (American, 7)
Dallas Fort Worth – Puerto Vallarta 2 5 June $174 Yes (American, 27)
Dallas Fort Worth – Los Cabos 2 3 June $189 Yes (American, 37)
*In the week of Sun Country’s start. Schedule changes could still be made for S20. ** Airlines include any partners.

Following Sun Country’s transformation to a ULCC, it has seen many complaints.  But it’d see complaints of an entirely different nature if it didn’t change in a significant way.


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