Jude Bricker was a month on the job as CEO of Sun Country Airlines when customers began bombarding him by e-mail with fears that his plans would change the airline into something unrecognizable — and unlovable.
Internal memos leaked to the press last month appeared to show Eagan-based Sun Country was on the verge of becoming an ultra low-cost carrier like Spirit, Frontier and the airline Bricker most recently worked for, Las Vegas-based Allegiant Air.
But that is not the direction the airline’s owner, Marty Davis of the billionaire Davis family in St. Peter, says he wants to go.
“If Jude Bricker was coming here to build another Allegiant Air, I wouldn’t have hired him and he wouldn’t have taken the job,” Davis told the Star Tribune. “It wasn’t an option for either one of us.”
He and Bricker envision a larger airline flying to more places that is still focused on leisure travelers and can give price-sensitive passengers what they want: lower fares with new flexibility.
Some of the changes coming to Sun Country — such as fees to use the overhead bin — do come straight from the playbook of the ultra low-cost carriers, or ULCCs in industry lingo. The difference, Davis and Bricker say, is the element of human touch that Sun Country is beloved for having and that ULCCs are despised for lacking.
“Look, we are going to have to change. We have a great brand and we have a really great relationship with our employees,” Bricker said. “It’s just the [financial] results aren’t there.”
The Davis family, which also owns Davisco Foods International and Cambria, bought the airline 2011. Since then, Sun Country has been profitable every year but one, when it broke even. But during a period of record airline profitability, Sun Country’s profitability trails its peers and rivals.
“So when the next downturn comes, we are going to be in a tough situation,” Bricker said. “We have to be a business that attracts investment in order to grow, so that our customers and employees can depend on us to be here in the long run.”
Bricker sees opportunities to cut costs and raise revenue at Sun Country. He will look to other big markets, like New York, San Francisco and Boston, to offer warm-weather getaways in winter. He plans changes to aircraft leasing. And there will be more fees.
Starting next month, Sun Country will charge passengers for their bags whether they put them in the overhead bin or check them at the ticket counter. A small personal item will still be free if it can fit under the seat.
In theory, the fee will reduce conflict over bin space while boarding and help Sun Country “turn” its airplanes quicker — meaning shortening the time span between a plane’s arrival and departure. As a result, fewer people will check bags, which lightens the airplane and burns less fuel, saving the company money.
While this aligns with the ultra low-cost carrier model, Bricker said their bag prices won’t be punitive like Spirit and Frontier. The ULCCs charge escalating luggage rates the closer the customer gets to the point of departure. Sun Country will charge a flat rate for baggage but executives haven’t decided the precise amount yet.
The airline will spend $10 million to remodel the interior of all its planes in the coming year, installing thinner seats. Davis said Sun Country has been looking at new seats for 18 months — long before Bricker arrived — because the airline currently has six different seat styles, which makes maintenance more complicated and expensive.
Thinner seats, coupled with a cabin reconfiguration, will allow Sun Country to increase the number of seats from 162 to 180 on its Boeing 737-800 aircraft. “If they can put more seats on a plane without making it look like a slave ship, then that makes sense,” said aviation consultant Michael Boyd, president of Colorado-based Boyd Group International. “You don’t leave money on the table.”
It will be a year before the cabin changes are visible to passengers. Once updated, Sun Country will begin charging for allocated seating, putting a premium on seats with more room or those on the aisle.
Sun Country will not implement one of the ULCC model’s biggest ancillary charges: the online booking fee.
It will still offer free nonalcoholic beverages to all its customers and complimentary food to its first-class passengers, but there will be some changes.
Right now, Sun Country spends $15 million annually to cater its aircraft and only makes about $3 million in onboard sales revenue. Under the new plan, passengers will be able to preorder their meals, which should reduce the carrying of excess food.
“We probably do too much on our short-haul, first-class product. You get a fruit and cheese tray, you get a three-course meal, you get a dessert, you get a basket of snacks afterward,” Bricker said. “You can’t eat everything we provide on short flights even if you want to.”
Davis said Sun Country has never customized its food offerings based on the length of a flight. “We did a one-size-fits-all,” he said. “And we just need to be more surgical about how we provide food to the passenger.”
Bricker said there’s room at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport for more Sun Country routes and there is demand in other northern U.S. cities for the type of warm-weather vacation destinations it serves, too. The airline currently leases 26 planes during busy months and 22 the rest of the year. Beginning in 2019, he hopes to increase the fleet by about six to eight planes a year.
Ultimately, Bricker said he believes Sun Country can expand its route network enough to support leasing up to 50 aircraft at a time. By comparison, Allegiant has 89 planes in its fleet, Spirit 107, Southwest Airlines 709 and Delta Air Lines 870.
Last month, Sun Country offered voluntary buyouts to nonpilot senior employees, particularly flight attendants or nonunion full-time employees with more than 10 years of experience who may not agree with the new direction of the airline. Davis and Bricker were pleased that not many workers took the offer and quelled concern that the airline would downsize its labor pool.
“We expect our labor to grow. We want more pilots, we want more flight attendants,” Bricker said, “but there will be some outsourcing opportunities.”
Some jobs at airports where Sun Country doesn’t have a large support infrastructure might be outsourced to third-party operators, which generally pay less. Those decisions are still being considered.
Bricker and Davis said they hope customers will see the changes as improvements and vital to Sun Country’s long-term success. When the time comes to roll out the new features to its passengers, Sun Country will communicate it clearly, they said. People buying tickets currently are not affected.
“I think what [Bricker] is doing is rethinking what Sun Country can be in the future,” Boyd said. “It’s always been a consumer-strong airline, but going forward there are opportunities they really can’t give up and they have to be aggressive, and he’s the guy to do it.”
Airline transitions are hard and, unfortunately, the flying public has witnessed many bad examples, said Derrick Daye, managing partner of Los Angeles-based brand strategy firm called the Blake Project.
“Brands have to change ... but what made this brand so beloved can never change,” Daye said. “That transition is only going to be smooth if it builds off the reputation you already have. It has to be evolutionary and not revolutionary.”
Davis said that Sun Country will always be a company that is reachable by its customers.
“All of our leadership — including me, including Jude — is on the website,” Davis said, suggesting that customers e-mail him. “We are hands-on. We are going to keep that.”