- Sun Country Airlines CEO Jude Bricker is preparing for a return to 2019 travel levels as early as the end of 2021.
- Instead of focusing on international routes, the carrier will strengthen its core business of domestic leisure routes.
- Bricker believes Hawaii will be a tourist hotspot because of the advantages the state offers and how it has handled the pandemic.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The year 2020, essentially, is a wash for airlines as travel restrictions and a potential second-wave of coronavirus linger over the embattled industry, largely preventing bookings for the summer, fall, and winter.
What airline executives don’t all agree on, however, is exactly when demand will return to the booming 2019 levels. The International Airlines Group, which owns British Airways, Aer Lingus, and Iberia, among others, stated in a letter to stock exchanges in London and Madrid that demand isn’t expected to return for years and is preparing to reduce the number of jobs at British Airways by up to 12,000 to match.
One US airline, however, thinks domestic US travel will rebound quicker and as soon as late 2021 using the country’s geography to its benefit. Jude Bricker, the chief executive officer at Sun Country Airlines, is already imaging ways of restructuring his airline’s route network around what he predicts will be pent-up demand for travel to domestic leisure destinations.
“My expectation is to places like the west coast of Florida, which Minnesotans have gone to [for] generations, Phoenix, Southern California will recover more rapidly than our international leisure business,” Bricker told Business Insider in an interview. The airline, which recently transitioned to low-cost operations, has a sizeable Central American and Caribbean route network and just began flying to Nassau, Bahamas in December.
“We’re not expecting [2019 levels] to happen in 2021 but towards the back of the year, I think that there’s certainly a chance that we could get back to that level,” Bricker added.
One destination in particular that Bricker is expecting to see a boom in travel to is Hawaii, where Sun Country has been flying from Minneapolis via Los Angeles since 2018. Since arriving in Honolulu two years ago, the airline has since added routes to the 50th state from Portland and San Francisco.
“Hawaii will be the destination of choice,” Bricker noted when asked if Hawaii will be of greater interest to the airline moving forward. “Hawaii … is doing quite well with the COVID crisis so it’ll be interesting to see how accepting they are of leisure customers from places elsewhere in the near term.”
The islands are a popular destination for travelers on the West Coast, the closest region in the mainland US, especially as the market has seen increased competition from low-cost carriers including Sun Country and Southwest Airlines. Access from the East Coast on nonstop flights has traditionally been limited to the New York area, with United Airlines, Delta Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines all offering direct flights from the tri-state area.
Hawaiian Airlines recently opened up its second route to the Northeast between Honolulu and Boston in 2019, which earned the title of the longest domestic route in the US. As the other side of the de facto Hawaiian flag carrier’s route network is composed primarily of international routes, the airline may be inclined to launch more routes to cities deeper in the mainland if Bricker’s prediction is accurate.
Hawaii, as well as other tropical island destinations that wear US flags such as Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, and St. Croix, offers travelers three advantages: short flights from the US mainland, no passport travel, and the protection of the US government. The domestic aspect is key as thousands of Americans were stuck overseas in foreign countries when international travel was restricted at the beginning of the pandemic.
Only around 600 cases of COVID-19 were reported in the entire state of 1.4 million which experienced less than 20 deaths from the virus.
Despite its advantages, Bricker doesn’t expect Sun Country to expand further into the islands. Citing a likely rush from the other airlines, the former Allegiant Air executive speculated a possible retreat for his airline from Hawaii to focus on core mainland domestic leisure routes.
“We’re largely a domestic carrier and I think domestic leisure is going to be what first comes back,” Bricker said.
While Hawaii is a long way from Minneapolis, the airline has a history of flying interesting routes, especially with a small narrow-body aircraft such as the Boeing 737. Before Bricker joined the airline, Sun Country operated a weekend-only service between Minneapolis and London, making a stop in Eastern Canada along the way.
For now, however, Sun Country will be focusing solely on the US.
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