Sun Country

Sun Country Pilots
The Sun Country B-737 passenger fleet has grown from 23 full-time airframes at the start of 2017 to 30 at the end of 2019.

More than two years after hiring a new CEO, and a year after being sold to a private equity firm, Sun Country Airlines bears little resemblance to the niche airline that once specialized in flying Midwesterners to warm destinations in the winter and somehow survived two bankruptcies since 2000.

But while the airline has dramatically changed, its pilot contract has not—a situation the pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) hopes to rectify when the pilot group enters contract negotiations this spring.

The airline’s pivot to an ultra-low-cost-carrier model is mostly complete. First class is out, and baggage fees and seat-selection fees are in. And in mid-December 2019, the company announced a seven-year agreement to operate 10 B-737 freighters for Amazon starting in spring 2020, making cargo roughly 20 percent of the company’s business.

The B-737 passenger fleet has grown from 23 full-time airframes at the start of 2017 to 30 at the end of 2019. The smaller -700 models, which made up about 30 percent of the fleet, have been largely replaced by larger -800 models, each configured for 183 seats and soon to be reconfigured to hold 186 revenue passengers.

It’s all part of an aggressive effort to drive down the company’s costs and raise the operating margin, which through the first half of 2019 was up to 10.3 percent.

Sun Country, which historically had massive seasonal fluctuations in flying—to the point that it once routinely furloughed in the summer months—continues to make efforts to even out its flying throughout the year, operating a busy summer schedule in 2019 and recording record profits.

Few public vestiges of the old Sun Country remain—even the livery is being updated. Customers from just a few years ago would likely have a hard time recognizing the new incarnation of the airline.

Behind the scenes, however, not much has changed for Sun Country’s roughly 370 pilots.

Pay is among the worst in the industry for narrowbody pilots, with an hourly rate of $189 for a 12-year captain, and first officer pay that starts at $52 per hour and tops out at $135 per hour after 14 years.

Pay, work rules, retirement contributions, scheduling, and virtually every other area of the current contract will be major topics of the upcoming negotiations, with the goal of achieving a contract that works for the new airline and is competitive within the industry.

The impact on hiring due to industry-lagging rates has been predictable, with the airline finding it increasingly difficult to attract pilots willing to accept the “hometown discount” that many Sun Country pilots—most of whom still live near the airline’s only base in Minneapolis, Minn.—were willing to trade for not having to commute and other quality-of-life benefits that the old airline model provided.

The bottom line is that the airline has a pilot contract that’s obsolete in company retirement contributions, commuter policies, and many other areas, having been negotiated to suit the Sun Country of old.

With the current contract amendable on October 31 and bargaining expected to begin by May, the MEC has been increasingly focused on preparing for Section 6 negotiations. The committee structure has been significantly beefed up so that volunteers are up to speed heading into bargaining, and strategic planning is under way.

To help the pilot group better understand how its existing contract works, as well as its flaws, in the context of the new business model, the MEC has reinvigorated its Pilot-to-Pilot program and will reemphasize contract education so that the pilot group is well informed as negotiations begin.

“We’ve become a brand-new, modern airline in the past three years, and now we need a modern contract to match,” said Capt. Brian Lethert, the pilots’ MEC chair. “Our goal is to accomplish that this year.”