I suppose if there is one common, albeit random, thread uniting my hometown airport, Dallas/Ft. Worth International, and my “new” current home airport, Minneapolis/Saint Paul (other than each one serving ‘twin’ cities divided into I-35 East and West) it is that both are hubs (or focus cities) for Sun Country Airlines.
Sun Country is a low-profile airline based out of Minnesota, formed by ex-Braniff pilots in the early 1980’s. Allegedly, it used to operate as a leisure/charter operation until 1999, when it branched out into the scheduled domestic and international space (source: CAPA).
Here in Minnesota, Sun Country offers an alternative option to the behemoth Delta Air Lines, the largest scheduled operator at MSP, to get to popular leisure and business destinations across North America. Looking at its route map, the network is slightly random as it offers access to the Sun destinations for Minnesota snowbirds (such as Phoenix, Palm Springs, Mexico, Costa Rica and the Caribbean) but also to markets like Anchorage, AK, Lansing, MI and Harlingen, TX. In a Spirit-esque way, it can also connect travelers to popular domestic US destinations such as Boston, New York, D.C., Miami, Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Diego. They also apparently flew from MSP to London Gatwick on a summer-seasonal basis in recent years, using an ETOPS-certified 737 that made a technical stop in Gander, Newfoundland.
SY Route Map, January 2014
However, unlike Spirit, SY markets itself as a hybrid low-cost carrier. The carrier is privately-owned by Minnesota-based Cambria group, so it does not report earnings publicly, but apparently they have been profitable over the past few years after a few bumps in the late 2000s when its financial performance was less than stellar.
On-board service and products
When I was travel shopping for flights home to DFW for Christmas, I wasn’t sold on the concept of flying Delta, American nor United and paying through my nose for $400+ tickets (and I was booking pretty far out – almost 8 weeks in advance). However, I used the casual ITA trick and did some one-way searches, finding a $150 o/w fare down on WN (leaving 12/23) and a $108 one-way fare return from DFW to MSP on Sun Country, leaving 12/27.
Fearful that SY was like Spirit and charged for overhead carry-ons, I tweeted to them asking about their carry-on policies, and they quickly responded saying that all YCL passengers were allowed a small personal item and a larger item to fit into the bins, free of charge. Consistent with other legacy US network carriers, the Economy class product included free beverages on-board, but charged for checked bags, meals, entertainment, pillows blankets and alcoholic drinks.
Figuring I had struck gold, I booked the one-way fare (which also left DFW and arrived into MSP at convenient times, an early evening 6PM departure and 9PM arrival) and even signed up for UFLY rewards, SY’s loyalty program.
As I was perusing the website (which was pretty 2004-era, but nevertheless functional), I came across a banner promoting Sun Country’s First Class page, with the following data:
From a pricing perspective, the carrier follows a fairly simple model of charging based on distance, listing out the breakdowns on its website via route. Routes under two hours cost $45 (i.e. MSP-MDW, DFW-HRL), routes between 2 and 3 hours costs $99 (i.e. MSP-TPA) and routes over 3 hours costs $119 (i.e. MSP-SEA). Interestingly, Fort Meyers, Las Vegas and Palm Springs are priced a bit higher at $145.00, and MSP to Alaska costs $155.00. While the latter is more explicable, the other three are interesting.
On international flights, upgrades can only be taken care of at the airport upon check-in (whereas domestic flights can be handled on the internet). Prices range from $119 to $155 and include taxes.
First Class experience
Upon checking-in online, I opted to pay the $99 for the upgrade. I figured, why not? The system had trouble processing the payment, so I had to call Sun Country’s reservations center to complete the transaction. Fortunately, it was pretty painless, but not really saying a lot about SY’s website platform. Not sure if this was an atypical bug or a regular thing, but my guess is that Sun Country doesn’t use groundbreaking technology.
Although my scheduled flight was at 6PM, my ride dropped me off at 1:30PM that day. One downside of flying a non-hub carrier out of DFW (even though it’s a ‘focus city’ for SY, there was only one flight operating out of DFW that day on SY metal) is that the check-in ticket counters are only operable during certain hours. Since SY’s website hadn’t allowed me to complete the reservation online, and I was supposed to check-in at the airport, I was worried that I would have to wait in the non-sterile area for several hours.
Fortunately, I was able to use one of the general kiosks available at DFW to print off my boarding pass, allowing me through security at Terminal D. I spent some time in the Lufthansa lounge, which is available to all Star Alliance Gold members at DFW even if they are not flying on a Star carrier (during certain hours, of course). I then proceeded to Terminal A to check out the new refurbishments as part of DFW’s terminal improvement campaign.
The flight to MSP was delayed by an hour due to a late inbound arrival from Cancun. Regardless, the staff was fairly apologetic about the situation and manged to turn the flight around fairly quickly when it made its way to the gate.
SY offers 12 First class seats on their Boeing 737-800s, with a 21′ width and 37-39 seat pitch, recliner-style. It was probably just about as comfortable as one would find on one of United’s 737s. The seat pocket entailed some reading items, including a really nice in-flight magazine called ‘Cambria,’ which obviously is heralded from the group that owns SY. It’s a delightful read.
On the ground, SY offered a pre-departure beverage service. The carrier offers a fully-stocked bar, which was impressive, including even cognac, bailey’s and bourbon. Service was presented with a smile and the FAs repeatedly made sure that customers were taken care of. Each passenger was also presented with a Sun Country-branded water bottle, which I thought was a nice touch.
Once in the air, we were offered a single hot meal option consisting of Spinach ravioli with a butternut squash sauce. The pasta was indeed delicious, served with a warm ciabatta bread and a warm chocolate chip cookie as well. To be honest, the meal was very similar to what United used to serve in domestic First prior to the CO merger.
Sun Country only offers digEplayers for sale as part of their In-Flight Entertainment product, but these are only available on flights over 3 hours.
Even with the delay, the flight felt very short and before long, we were making our descent into Minneapolis/Saint Paul. The taxi to the gate was short and I was soon on my way home via the Light Rail Transit.
I am happy that I signed up for the UFLY rewards program. Even with the delay, the service on Sun Country is pleasant, and the ticket prices are very affordable and reasonable. I would say that the $99 upgrade was totally worth the price just to get a flavor for the airline’s premium product. It was also a packed flight, so being able to have overhead bin space and be the first to board and deplane was also a nice perk.
As I mentioned previously, 2014 is my year to “experiment” with new carriers to determine where I shall set my loyalty since I am no longer committed to United Airlines. Obviously, Sun Country presents a nice “alternative” option by providing a sizeable network within reach of Minneapolis/Saint Paul at competitive prices. Of course, it’s a tougher sell since it does not have the frequency nor schedule of some of the larger US carriers, and they are a standalone airline rather than a global alliance member.
From a customer experience standpoint, I hope to continue to have more positive things to say about them should I fly Sun Country again in the near future. Certainly, having a more user-friendly website would be an improvement, as well as an on-time arrival. However, Sun Country still adequately stepped up to the plate in other areas, namely pertaining to the hard and soft products on-board. Moreover, $200 for a First Class ticket (including 2-complimentary bags, a hot meal, priority boarding and complimentary beverages) is definitely a steal in this day and age.