Sun Country pilots volunteer at the 2017 Girls in Aviation Day in Minneapolis, Minn. From left, Capt. Tom Born, Capt. James Aarestad, and F/O Chris Uribe.
For years, Minneapolis, Minn.-based Sun Country Airlines has enjoyed a small but comfortable niche as a Midwestern fun-and-sun carrier with a limited but loyal customer base and friendly, personal service. But with a new owner and a new CEO in charge, the airline is making some significant changes.
Faced with a drop in the airline’s revenues, last July Sun Country’s former owner hired Jude Bricker as CEO. Bricker, the former chief operating officer of budget carrier Allegiant Air, almost immediately announced plans to expand the airline and transition into a low-cost leisure carrier, seeking to position the airline between bare-bones ultra-low-cost carriers like Frontier and Spirit and more expensive mid-major airlines such as Alaska and JetBlue.
Bricker started making immediate changes to improve efficiency and cut costs, including offering buyouts to some employee groups, according to Capt. Brian Roseen, the pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) chairman.
“Management hasn’t offered buyouts to the pilot group, probably because the airline is still planning to expand hiring even further to cover attrition and to support growth plans,” Roseen said.
Then in December, Wall Street investment firm Apollo Global Management, LLC bought Sun Country and announced plans to expand the fleet by six aircraft per year, a significant increase for an airline with fewer than 30 aircraft currently on the property.
Roseen noted that the company has already expressed interest in some contractual changes to adjust to the new structure.
“Our Negotiating Committee is prepared to meet with management to discuss whether we can find common ground that will help the airline grow and improve pilot pay, benefits, and our quality of life,” said Roseen. “In the meantime, we plan to poll the pilot group to make sure that we’re listening to our members before we plot a course for any changes.”
The new management has shown it can collaborate with the pilots on some issues, particularly safety. After successfully revamping its FOQA program in 2016, pilots and management are also working to finalize a letter of agreement for a new advanced qualification program to improve and update pilot training.
Another area of cooperation is Sun Country’s Community Involvement Program, run jointly by the airline and the pilots. The program has been active in the community, sponsoring park cleanups and holiday toy drives, as well as supporting food charities and Minneapolis’ annual Girls in Aviation Day.
“Sun Country has always been known as a hometown airline. We try very hard to give back to the community because the majority of us live here in the upper Midwest and have deep roots here,” Roseen explained.
The airline has cautiously begun changing some of its policies to increase profits without losing its extremely loyal customer base. The carrier plans to implement new fees for baggage and seating and will add more seats to its all-B-737 fleet.
Part of Bricker’s mandate is to rapidly expand the carrier and grow it beyond its niche in Minnesota. Competition for new pilots could hamper those growth plans; just two years into its five-year contract, the airline is already seeing its pay rates become less competitive as other carriers make contract gains.
“We’re willing to help the airline as much as we can, as long as management remembers that ‘low cost’ shouldn’t mean ‘low pay’ where pilots are concerned. Our compensation must be competitive for us to attract new pilots,” Roseen said.