MILWAUKEE WELCOMES SUN COUNTRY AIRLINES

By: Category: AirlinersAirlinesAirports Around the WorldBoeingEventsKMKE Airport

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It was anything but sunny when N826SY, a 15-year-old Boeing 737-8F2 touched down on Runway 1 Left at General Mitchell International Airport at 0847 on Thursday August 26th. A few short minutes later Sun Country Airlines flight 123 pulled into Gate D-42, after departing from the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport at 0758 on Sun Country’s “re” inaugural of scheduled service to Milwaukee. Sun Country has served Milwaukee for several years flying charters, and also flew scheduled service to Milwaukee from 1999 to 2001. Sun Country announced on April 27th that they could begin scheduled service to Milwaukee with flights initially to Las Vegas and Minneapolis, with service commencing later this year to Phoenix, Fort Myers, and Cancun Mexico. Sun Country would become the second airline to add Milwaukee to its network this year.

Sun Country’s story would begin in 1982, when a group of pilots and flight attendants from the bankrupt Braniff International Airlines, assisted by Minneapolis businessmen, would form the airline. The early airline based in Minneapolis with its 33 employees would start flying charter services with a single Boeing 727-200 in 1983. Sun Country would expand slowly through the balance of the 1980’s adding employees, routes, cities, and aircraft. It soon became apparent that larger aircraft would be needed to supplement its fleet of Boeing 727’s. This came in the form of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10-40, ironically leased from its competitor and rival Northwest Airlines. The DC-10 would give Sun Country the capability to fly international charters and also provide much needed capacity on popular charter routes such as Minneapolis to Las Vegas. In 1989, Sun Country would become a member of the CRAF (Civilian Reserve Air Fleet) program. The CRAF program was created to augment Department of Defense Airlift requirements in emergencies when the need for airlift exceeds the capability of military aircraft. The participants in the program are mix of passenger and cargo airlines and include both narrow body and wide body aircraft. As of the time this article was written there are currently 24 airlines and 450 aircraft enrolled in the program.
In 1991, the airline continued to acquire more Boeing 727-200 and McDonnell Douglas DC-10 series aircraft as more tour operators chose Sun Country as their air carrier. These charter flights had an emphasis on flying from cities in the Midwest to Las Vegas, Florida, Mexico, and the Caribbean. In 1997, Bill La Macchia and Wisconsin based Mark Travel would pay $41 Million to acquire a 75% interest in the airline. Sun Country up to this point had been profitable for 16 years and flew approximately 3 million passengers a year in a fleet of 15 aircraft. In June of 1999, Sun Country management started to transform the airline from charter flying to scheduled service with operations focused on Minneapolis and Milwaukee. As the year drew to a close, Sun Country was offering scheduled service on 81 nonstop routes to 23 destinations. Sun Country would also make A change to its livery with a tail logo that comprises an “S” in the middle of the sun.

Sun Country entered the year 2000, with an aging fleet and was facing increasingly stiff competition from Northwest Airlines. It was announced later that year that Sun Country would replace its entire fleet with brand new and more fuel-efficient Boeing 737-800’s. Sun Country would also introduce a new livery as the 737-800’s joined the fleet. Sun Country was already stretched to its limits when the tragic events of 9-11 unfolded which caused a sharp decline in traffic and revenue for all airlines. The airline fought to stay operational by cutting flights, destinations, aircraft and employees but it would not be enough, Sun Country shut down on December 8th, 2001 and declared bankruptcy. Sun Country was down, but definitely not out, as in a few short months a group of investors known as MN Airlines LLC purchased the remaining assets. These assets included its operating certificate, and one Boeing 737-8Q8 (N801SY), the headquarters for the revived airline would once again be located in Minneapolis. The airline was restarted and quickly emerged from bankruptcy, steadily adding more next generation Boeing 737-700 and 800’s operating charters from Minneapolis. Scheduled service once again would be offered with an initial emphasis on Florida, Mexico, and the West Coast.

October of 2006 would see the airline acquired by Petters Group Worldwide and Whitebox Advisors. Sun Country would face trouble once again in when the major recession of 2008 hit which brought about cutbacks in destinations, aircraft and employees. In October of 2008 the CEO of the Petters Group, Tom Petters, was arrested on allegations of fraud with Sun Country being a major victim. The airline would once again be forced into Chapter 11 bankruptcy to separate itself from the other Petters companies and to protect itself. Sun Country would quickly rebound and was profitable once again the next year and was restoring service, adding service and expanding again. In July of 2011 the airline was bought out of bankruptcy for $34 million dollars by the Davis Family, the owners of Cambria, a Minnesota based countertop company.

Sun Country would continue to be profitable and would continue to expand when Cambria sold the airline to New York based Apollo Global Management in December of 2017 as the airline continued its revised strategy of becoming a “no frills” airline. Sun Country would also make a slight change to its livery in 2017 as well. The most noticeable change was a change in the style of lettering in the airlines name, they would also add names of prominent Minnesota Lakes to the nose. As the Boeing 737-700’s started to leave the fleet to standardize on the 800 model Sun Country would make another livery change in late 2018 when the current scheme was adopted. The current livery nicknamed the “Tide Pod” color scheme as it looks very similar to the popular detergent was actually voted on by employees. If you look closely at the blue areas around the tail and on the winglets, they actually feature contours from the depth charts of Minnesota’s Lake Minnetonka. In December of 2019, Amazon would enter the picture by purchasing a minority stake in the airline, with operations commencing with a fleet of Boeing 737-800 Freighters under the Amazon Air Brand. This would be a perfect marriage for Sun Country as their passenger model is heavily focused on focused and was designed to help stabilize revenues during non-peak seasons. Prime Air flights are primarily flown from Amazon Air hubs located at Lakeland Florida and Forth Worth Texas. The airline would become publicly listed and traded on the NASDAQ on March 17th of 2021. The Sun shined brightly for the future of Sun Country and continues to do so.

We turn our focus back to General Mitchell International Airport as Sun Country’s Ground Handler Menzies Aviation quickly turned N826SY around as Sun Country Flight 145 to Las Vegas Harry Reid International Airport for an on-time departure at 1000. A short ceremony was held at Gate D-42 with remarks given by Airport Director Brian Dranzik and Sun Country’s Communications Manager, Erin Blanton. Brian Dranzik remarked “Sun Country is a fantastic addition to travelers from Southeast Wisconsin and Northern Illinois.” Erin Blanton added “Milwaukee has so much to offer, we are thrilled to add our brand of convenient and affordable travel here.” A symbolic ribbon cutting ceremony was held prior to the first passengers were to board the aircraft.

A total of 126 passengers would board flight 146, which pushed from the gate at 1013. It is normally tradition for the Airport Fire Department to provide a water cannon salute for the inaugural departure, however that was not possible today. Due to poor visibility and low ceilings it was decided to cancel due to safety reasons. Sun Country Flight 146 taxied without delay to Runway 1 Left and departed promptly at 1025 and would arrive out in Las Vegas at 1151 local time.
Sun Country airlines currently operates a fleet of 34 passenger Boeing 737-800’s and 12 Boeing 737-800’s in freighter configuration. Sun Country will routinely augment its fleet by leasing additional aircraft as needed, most commonly from Transavia Airlines. Sun Country currently flies passenger service to 70 destinations in the United States, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. Sun Country also serves several different destinations under the Amazon Air banner, again primarily from Fort Worth Texas and Lakeland Florida. Sun Country employees approximately 1,600 people with the majority of them based out of its headquarters in Minneapolis Minnesota. Sun Country’s website states it perfectly, “It’s our mission to connect our community with their favorite people and places to create lifelong memories and transformative experiences.” The sky is the limit for Sun Country and will expand service to Milwaukee later this year, bringing additional opportunities for travelers to enjoy their “safe, reliable, hassle-free flights at affordable prices with warm and friendly service.” I would like to extend a special thank you to the entire Airport Media and Public relations staff and Sun Country Airlines for their time and assistance in making this article possible. Until next time, “Blue Skies to All!”