Sun Country Airlines is peeling back the curtain on its new growth strategy, announcing nearly a dozen new routes, all outside the Twin Cities.
The Eagan-based carrier said Tuesday it will offer seasonal service from Dallas-Fort Worth, St. Louis and Madison, Wis., signaling a two-pronged strategy for national expansion. St. Louis and Madison are new markets for Sun Country and fit into the company's goal of connecting Midwestern cities to western Florida during cold-weather months, while the Dallas metroplex is an example of a large market with room for more competitive leisure fares.
All three markets are gaining twice-weekly service to and from Fort Myers Southwest Florida International Airport and Tampa International Airport. Midwest markets have predictable, high-priced air demand to west Florida in winter, and the airline is supporting that with lower-cost fares, said Sun Country Chief Executive Jude Bricker.
"It aligns with our core Midwest values that has worked well here in Minneapolis, and we are just exporting those values to these new markets," Bricker said in an interview.
Sun Country expects to announce additional (non-Florida) routes from another U.S. market Wednesday.
None of the new routes are from Minneapolis-St. Paul, but Bricker said, "It's still good for Minnesota."
"We are working to build a strong financial base where we can continue to grow and continue to hire," Bricker said.
To support this growth, Sun Country is taking on five more airplanes, under a lease-to-own arrangement, by the end of August, and two more by the end of the year. It is also hiring 125 flight attendants, about 100 pilots and some technicians. The company currently has a Minnesota payroll of about $150 million.
As the nation's smallest mainline carrier, Sun Country will have to build its name recognition in markets outside the Twin Cities. But the airline is also more agile, demonstrated in its seasonal schedule of flying routes just a few days a week.
"I think it's our competitive advantage. As a small, nimble airline we can be very, very surgical in the way we allocate the capacity," Bricker said. This will remain the strategy until Sun Country reaches much greater scale, he said.
Airlines only make money when their airplanes are flying — ideally packed with paying customers. Since airplanes are movable assets, it makes sense to look for every high-demand, high-priced point on the map, said Bob Mann, an aviation analyst and former airline executive.
"It's not random, but it diverges from what they've historically done," Mann said. "It's opportunistic," he said, and mirrors the approach taken by other low-cost carriers, including Spirit, Frontier and, to a certain degree, Bricker's former employer, Allegiant Air.
The new routes help build up Sun Country's network at Dallas-Fort Worth, where it already flies to numerous Mexico destinations as well as Las Vegas. It also adds more traffic to and from Florida, but for now, Bricker said he doesn't expect to add a Sun Country employee base there unless operations increase significantly. For now, Sun Country remains a company predominantly run by Minnesota employees.
Even though these new flights don't touch the Twin Cities, Bricker said, they will still be Minnesota employees staffing them. "We are growing Minneapolis, but we also need to diversify away from it," he said.