Sun Country’s New CEO Could Remake the Airline, If Things Go Well
Unless you live in Minneapolis, there’s a good chance you don’t even know the name Sun Country. But sure enough, after more than 30 years and several ownership changes, the airline continues to fly. It’s even made money the last couple of years, but that wasn’t enough to prevent the last CEO from losing his job. In his place, Jude Bricker, formerly with Allegiant, has been announced as the successor. This is a great move…if ownership gives him free rein.
In a way, Sun Country is the anti-Allegiant. Allegiant’s original focus was to bring people from many small cities to vacation in a single destination. Sun Country’s focus is to take people from one big city (Minneapolis) and take them to vacation in a bunch of destinations. Here’s the route map.
As you can see it is almost entirely focused on Minneapolis with winter dominated by flights going south so those frozen Minnesotans can warm up. In the summer, more emphasis is on east/west flying when Minnesotans are less concerned about finding warm weather and more concerned about escaping 100 pound mosquitoes.
The fleet of 23 airplanes (6 737-700s and 17 737-800s, according to CAPA) also does charter work, which is why you’ll see ultra-glamorous Laughlin/Bullhead City with Sun Country aircraft on a regular basis.
Most of the fleet has both coach and First Class, though there are 3 all-coach airplanes which I assume are mostly for the charter work. In the back, seat pitch is what you’d expect from a more traditional airline. It’s certainly not down to ultra-low cost carrier levels, but things like baggage and food are a la carte. Still, the airline seems more like an old school low cost carrier that’s almost entirely dependent on Minnesotans wanting to travel somewhere… and not on Delta.
This may seem like a losing combination, especially since Southwest has entered Minneapolis as well now, but Sun Country continues to soldier on. The airline has had its share of trouble, but it has actually shown a profit the last couple of years, as mentioned earlier. Granted, it’s not a huge profit and 2016 was worse than 2015.
There’s a lot of work to be done, but it’s not losing money.
Now, enter Jude. Jude had been at Allegiant for over a decade on both the commercial and operating sides of the business, and he was undoubtedly one of the most capable and important architects of the airline’s success (at a senior level) during that time. But things at Allegiant have been — let’s call it “interesting” — lately with a lot of turnover and questions about the company’s focus. Jude left, and it didn’t take him long to resurface in Minnesota.
The question now is… what will he do with Sun Country? Or possibly, what will he be allowed to do by the ownership group.
Though I don’t know this for a fact, I think it’s safe to assume that Jude had a lot he wanted to do at Allegiant that didn’t happen. Either he didn’t have enough resources to get things done, he didn’t have the time, or the leader/owner at the top just didn’t want it to happen. Any of those would be a good enough reason to quit. (To be clear, this is pure speculation.)
Now Jude is coming in to Sun Country, and you have to think he wants to take some his vision for Allegiant and make it a reality in Minnesota. Yes it’s a different kind of airline, but it’s an airline that seems stuck in the middle with mediocre results and plenty of threat to its ongoing survival. It needs a new strategy.
If ownership buys into Jude’s vision and gives him the resources to carry it out, this could be very exciting to watch. Sleepy Sun Country might start turning some heads. I imagine that’s what drew Jude to the airline. It was a chance to work with an existing platform and mold it into his vision.
So, uh, what is Jude’s vision? Well, I don’t know. But I would be surprised if his pedigree as a leader at an ultra-low cost carrier like Allegiant didn’t point to where the airline is headed. That doesn’t mean it will mirror Allegiant, but I would be shocked if cost reduction wasn’t on the docket. If he can make the airline lean enough to compete on cost, then the opportunities could be endless for the airline.
If Sun Country could become the ultra-low cost carrier with a Minnesota personality (read: nice and friendly), then it could do quite well for itself.
Of course, I’m just projecting what I’d like to see. I’ve only met Jude a couple times, and I don’t know if this is his vision. But chances are, if he didn’t have a real plan here with buy-in from ownership, he wouldn’t have been offered or taken this job. It’s been years since Sun Country has been one to watch. I get the feeling that’s about to change.