Sun Country

Sun Country Pilots
The first B-737 in Sun Country’s new livery joins the fleet in December 2018.

Minneapolis, Minn.-based Sun Country Airlines started 2018 with new owners and a renewed emphasis on transforming itself into a low-cost carrier.

After hiring former Allegiant Air executive Jude Bricker as CEO in mid-2017, in December Sun Country’s Minnesota owners sold the airline to New York-based Apollo Global Management, one of the world’s largest private equity fund managers.

The ownership transition from Main Street to Wall Street has only accelerated Sun Country’s transition away from a beloved North Country icon to a lean and cost-cutting low-fare company with international reach in the mold of Spirit and Frontier Airlines.

According to news media reports, Apollo spent $90 million in 2018 to buy two new aircraft and make other improvements to the airline’s all-B-737 fleet. It’s phasing out its smaller B-737-700s and installing slimline seating to increase passenger capacity. Like other low-cost carriers, it’s also eliminated the first-class cabin and imposed new charges for baggage, food and drink, and preferred seating.

A key component to Sun Country’s low-cost strategy is to grow a network of new nonstop routes that depend less on its sole hub in Minneapolis, including new mini-hubs in Nashville, Tenn., and Portland, Ore. The pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) had known for months that the company was seeking contract changes to support that effort, and in October the two sides entered nonbinding discussions facilitated by the National Mediation Board.

Company leaders stated that they had a limited list of items they wanted to address that would allow them to better implement their business plan. However, during the two-day meeting, they proposed a longer list of specific work-rule changes than the MEC had anticipated. In addition to new domiciles and temporary duty, management sought multiple proposed work-rule changes.

“Our view of the company ‘asks’ was that they would increase our pilots’ time at work, negatively impact their quality of life, and reduce schedule flexibility,” said Capt. Brian Roseen, the pilots’ MEC chair. “The company’s proposed changes and offer to move value into compensation weren’t consistent with what the pilots have told us they wanted.”

The MEC determined that moving forward on this basis wouldn’t meet with the pilot group’s expectations. “We told the company and the mediator that we remain available for future discussions, but at this time no further talks are planned,” Roseen added.

Meanwhile, the airline continues its rebranding efforts. Instead of the old owner’s “Hometown Lakes” initiative to name each of Sun Country’s B-737s after a Minnesota lake, in 2018 the company sponsored a contest in which employees chose Sun Country’s new aircraft livery. The first aircraft featuring the winning design, which adds a splash of white to the carrier’s traditional orange and blue logo colors, joined the company’s fleet in December. The new-design aircraft marked another first for the airline—it’s the first jet that the company has ever owned. Bricker hopes to grow the fleet to 50 aircraft by 2026, the year the company’s final lease expires.

With pilot hiring tightening, Sun Country is taking steps to ensure a consistent flow of pilot talent. It inked agreements with Minnesota State University, Mankato, and the University of North Dakota in 2018 to offer flight students accepted into the program a guaranteed pilot job with the carrier once they graduate and amass enough flight hours.

But the best recruiting program, Roseen said, will always be industry-standard pay, benefits, work rules, and job security. “Our emphasis as an MEC will always be to focus on those four contract cornerstones the next time we sit down with the company,” he said.