Employees at Sun Country Airlines headquarters were glued to flight-tracking websites one afternoon last week, waiting for the right moment to run to their office windows.
The first plane ever purchased by Sun Country in its 36-year history and the first to be painted in the airline's bold new color scheme was about to land at nearby Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. And it had been arranged for the aircraft to fly over the headquarters building in Eagan so employees could see the design that they had voted for a few months ago.
When the airplane with tail number 830 approached, employees ran from one side of the room to the other, trying to catch a longer glimpse.
"It's great to finally see," said Chris Broll, a brand and visual designer at Sun Country, who created the new look. "This is the first plane I've ever designed."
The airplane, which entered service over the weekend and was unveiled formally at the airport Tuesday, ushered in an era of firsts for the revamped Sun Country.
It's the first in what will one day be an entirely owned fleet for the airline. It's the first plane with the new exterior look, and it's one of the first two Sun Country planes to have the interior refreshed with all-new seats and features.
Chief Executive Jude Bricker has charted a new course for Minnesota's hometown airline aimed at improving its financial performance so it can ultimately grow.
"The financial history of Sun Country is not wonderful," Bricker told reporters Tuesday. "Over the last 15 years, Sun Country has pretty dramatically underperformed the rest of the industry. We were the smallest, worst financially performing mainline … carrier in the country. It's a very dangerous place to be."
Owning an airplane is usually half as expensive as leasing one, Bricker said. It will take about eight years to transition to a fleet that the company owns. The airline currently operates about 30 aircraft. Bricker expects by this time next year the airline will own between 12 and 15 airplanes. When Sun Country's last plane lease expires in 2026, Bricker's goal is to own 50 airplanes and to have doubled its current flight operations.
The company's first owned airplane looks new, but is actually 17 years old — a fairly average age for a U.S. commercial airplane. All of the purchased planes will be used Boeing 737s.
Bricker took the helm a year and a half ago and knew dramatic changes were needed if the airline wanted to survive another recession. While Sun Country customers say they want the first-class experience, most weren't paying for it, Bricker said. At MSP, premium business travelers tend to fly Delta Air Lines, which controls 70 percent of the local market and can offer people a global network.
"In this market, we are willfully subject to a monopolist," Bricker said. "Our place in the market is really finding customers who are spending their own money on travel and who value reaching their destination more so than the travel experience itself."
Sun Country got rid of its first-class offering, making it all one cabin with three tiers of legroom. There's best, better and standard with respectively 34 inches, 32 inches and 30 inches of space between rows. The new seats are what industry calls "slimline" and are the same brand used by Delta.
Sun Country selected a seat that has a bit more cushion and is about 30 percent more expensive than the slimline seats used by Frontier and Spirit Airlines, said Brian Davis, Sun Country's chief marketing officer.
The cabins, which will all be renovated between now and the end of January, will also have USB charging outlets and a browser-based entertainment system that gives customers free access on their own devices to movies, TV shows, magazines and games.
After Minnesota brothers Mitch and Marty Davis sold the airline to private-equity firm Apollo Global Management earlier this year, Bricker promised the new owner he would get the company's costs under control by cutting expenses that didn't make financial sense. In turn, Apollo would invest in the airline to grow it quickly.
The changes haven't all been smooth. It turned over ground operations at MSP to a third-party vendor but took them back when the outside firm didn't hire staff quickly enough. It has since contracted with a different third-party vendor, DAL Global Services.
In March, two planeloads of Sun Country passengers were stranded in Mexico by a winter storm and subsequent scheduling change that left the airline without planes to send to get them. Since then, Sun Country has doubled the number of customer-service agents and started buying trip insurance for every passenger on the last scheduled flight out of one of its seasonal destinations.
This year, the company invested $90 million to buy planes, new seats, spare engines and a new IT system. Bricker said a new website and sales platform should be in operation by June next year.