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Sun Country Seeks More Subsidized Air Service
Sun Country, a Minneapolis/St. Paul-based ultra-low-cost carrier which operates a fleet of Boeing 737-800s, has begun the process of applying for more Essential Air Service (EAS) contracts.
Roughly a year ago, the carrier took the aviation community by surprise winning its first EAS contract in the Wisconsin community of Eau Claire. This became Sun Country’s shortest route at only 85 miles, the largest aircraft to regularly fly to an EAS city, and also the longest EAS route as the contract also has them operating flights from Eau Claire to Las Vegas. AirlineGeeks even had the chance to fly on Sun Country’s inaugural flight to Eau Claire.
One year ago, nobody would’ve thought that Sun Country would end up with an EAS contract, let alone be applying for more. Technically the airline does not even qualify for EAS service given that it has less than daily service, but nonetheless, Sun Country was awarded the contract in Eau Claire and is coming up on the one-year anniversary of the inaugural.
The two EAS communities it has now applied for include Brainerd in Minnesota as well as Rhinelander in Wisconsin. Both communities currently see SkyWest service under the Delta Connection brand onboard CRJ-200s, but will soon switch to CRJ-700s or CRJ-900s due to a directive from Delta that all branded service must be dual-class service starting October 2023.
Rhinelander and Brainerd, along with three other midwestern EAS communities will have their current contract end on January 31, 2024, with the new term date beginning the next day, on February 1, 2024. The two communities that Sun Country will be bidding for also have other applicants; including Boutique Air and current operator SkyWest.
Boutique Air is proposing 30-weekly flights to Brainerd and 24-weekly flights to Rhinelander either on the Pilatus PC-12 or the Piaggio P180. The subsidy that the carriers are asking for is somewhere between $5,300,000 and $6,800,000 per year depending on the route and aircraft type.
SkyWest is offering a unique bid, as per the previously noted Delta directive it has to operate dual-class service to all Delta-branded destinations. But, SkyWest has always served these communities in the past with 50-seat jets as anything larger including the 69-76 seat jets such as the CRJ-700s and CRJ-900s would be too much capacity for some of these smaller communities. So, in the proposal, SkyWest does note “CRJ-550/700/900” as the aircraft which will serve the route.
This hints toward the fact that SkyWest is actively retrofitting or willing to retrofit some of its CRJ-700 aircraft into CRJ-550s, as the directive only says is it has to be dual-class service. This will also bring the aircraft down to 50 seats, while also offering a premium class.
SkyWest would service both cities from Minneapolis/St. Paul, with Brainerd getting 12-weekly round trips, and Rhinelander getting 14-weekly round trips. The requested subsidy is roughly $5,600,000 to $6,7800,000 per year depending on which route and aircraft type.
Sun Country’s Recent Proposal
The Sun Country proposal is an interesting one. As noted, the carrier technically doesn’t qualify for an EAS subsidy as the service is less than daily and doesn’t offer connecting onward flights from three of the four destinations on offer. For both communities, Sun Country is proposing year-round service to Minneapolis/St. Paul that will operate two to three times per week, which means it will be closer to two most weeks with some weeks offering three frequencies.
From January through April, it will offer up to six times per week flights to Fort Meyers. From May through August it will offer up to five times per week to Orlando, and finally from September through November, it will offer up to three times per week flights to Phoenix Sky Harbor. This will equate to 414 departures per year out of each individual airport on 186-seat Boeing 737-800s aircraft.
Even though it still wouldn’t bring the Minneapolis service up to daily, Sun Country also mentioned that it would offer Landline bus service to its Minneapolis/St. Paul hub, but that is not part of the EAS subsidy request. The subsidy request per year for Sun Country in both communities is around the $6,800,000 to $6,900,000 range, so it is more expensive than the other two airlines are proposing and there will also be a lot fewer flights per year along with fewer opportunities for connections. But despite the number of flights being less, the yearly amount of seats Sun Country will offer out of each community is a lot more as the aircraft is larger, which Sun Country hopes will sway the communities into choosing them, similar to Eau Claire.
Costs aside, as they are pretty close to being the same, all of the contracts have positives and negatives. For Boutique, it has much smaller aircraft with only eight seats, but the positive is their service is a lot more frequent with flights 30 times a week, meaning there would at least be four daily flights but the number of available seats per year would also be closer to 12,000. Passengers can also connect and check baggage through to United and American flights in Minneapolis.
SkyWest has been in these communities for many years and they have a long-standing foundation, and generally people don’t like change so this may be the path of least resistance. It will service the communities with 69-76-seat regional jets that also offer first-class cabins, and passengers can connect to the Delta network. Using numbers from the 76-seat jet, the amount of yearly available seats will be around 47,500 for Brainerd and around 55,300 for Rhinelander.
Sun Country simply has bigger jets, and communities may just go with them when they catch a case of ‘big shiny jet syndrome,’ similar to when communities with propeller flights see SkyWest applying. They have the most overall seats per year with just over 77,000 annual seats for each community on Boeing 737-800s and passengers can fly nonstop to Phoenix, Orlando, and/or Fort Meyers depending on the time of year.
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