Sun Country Airlines revealed Friday that it will begin twice-daily service from the Twin Cities to Chicago in an attempt to attract more business passengers on the most-traveled route out of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
Morning and late-afternoon service to Chicago's Midway International Airport will begin July 1, Sun Country executives said in an interview with the Star Tribune.
"With Chicago, we can solidify our position and platform with routes to other business cities," Sun Country board Chairman Marty Davis said. "We want to carve out a niche and fill a void that is there."
Sun Country, known primarily as an airline honed for leisure travelers, considers its business travel network to include existing service to Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., Orlando, Dallas, Las Vegas, Phoenix, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.
But the Chicago venture will not be without its challenges.
According to the Metropolitan Airports Commission, five different carriers currently offer about 44 flights a day between Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) and Midway and O'Hare airports in Chicago; 29 flights fly into O'Hare, 15 into Midway.
The airlines range from Twin Cities hub giant Delta to American, United, Southwest and discount carrier Spirit Airlines.
"It's a very competitive market with five airlines already in the mix. With a sixth carrier it will be difficult to see how they will attract passengers other than their own frequent fliers," said Steve Loucks, chief communications officer for Plymouth-based Travel Leaders Group, the largest travel agency company in the United States.
But Sun Country thinks its strategically scheduled flights — at the start and the end of the business day — as well as its location in MSP's less crowded Terminal 2 will appeal to business travelers who often face long security lines and parking hassles at the larger Terminal 1. There will be only one flight on Saturdays.
"We're offering a more comfortable, friendly flying experience," said Sun Country CEO John Fredericksen. "We know there's a lot of competition there but there are also a huge number of passengers in that market."
Sun Country will use a Boeing 737-700 model for its Chicago service. That aircraft has 129 seats, including 12 in first class.
Davis added that Sun Country does not intend to be a discount carrier on the route.
"We're trying to fill a niche and not go head-to-head with the other carriers. We're not going to make this a price play," Davis said.
Round-trip walk-up fares this week ranged from $451 to $468 for legacy carriers Delta, American and United. Full fare for Southwest was $433. Spirit Airlines offers a deep fare discount but adds on a variety of fees that make it difficult to compare. Fares two weeks in advance were at $173.80 for the legacy carriers and $225.80 for Southwest, according to Travel Leaders.
A spokesman for Delta Air Lines, which provides service from MSP to both O'Hare and Midway airports, said the Atlanta-based carrier values those routes.
"It's an important market for us. It's also already a very competitive market," said spokesman Trebor Banstetter. "Delta is competitive with other carriers throughout our system."
One of the advantages larger airlines have when it comes to attracting business travelers is a frequent flier program that allows for first-class upgrades. A carrier like Southwest doesn't have a first-class section.
Sun Country is hoping its new frequent flier program, which allows passengers to pool award points among small groups of people, will attract new customers. Sun Country's frequent flier program also allows for first-class upgrades if seats are available.
Davis and Fredericksen said Chicago Midway is a better destination for Sun Country than the larger O'Hare because of Midway's proximity to downtown and an easy commuter train connection.
"The logistics are really good for our passengers," Davis said.
In addition, there is less congestion at Midway and fewer delays, Fredericksen added.
The pending Chicago service comes as Sun Country solidifies its position in the airline industry. Fredericksen said net income last year was up over 2011 levels. He described the airline's first quarter of 2013 as strong.
"We're very pleased with our Mexico business and our charter business has done very well," Fredericksen said, noting that 15 teams in the NCAA men's basketball tournament flew to their destinations on Sun Country.