An airline which has flown to Honolulu from California, Oregon and Minneapolis, has abruptly ended all of its low-cost flights to the islands. The alleged reason is a shortage of pilots, but we’ll share with you our thoughts .
Sun Country told customers that, “due to the current pilot shortage impacting all U.S. airlines, Sun Country has regrettably elected to suspend service to Honolulu, HI (HNL) for the 2022 travel season. Passengers who were booked on impacted flights will automatically be refunded to their original form of payment for their reservation.”
The airline said it was also refunding some other expenses, but to what degree, wasn’t clear. They said, “we apologize for any inconvenience this temporary suspension of Honolulu service causes to our customers. ”We are hopeful for a return of Honolulu service for the 2023 travel season.”
Our take is that it’s only slightly more likely that Sun Country will return to Hawaii then Allegiant. In the end, we question whether Hawaii was ever a good fit for this low-cost carrier.
The history of Sun Country Hawaii flights.
You may recall when we last mentioned the airline in January 2019, we said “Sun Country Hawaii Adds to LA, San Francisco, Portland Competition.” At the time, Sun Country started 737-800 flights between San Francisco and Honolulu. The Minneapolis airline added those to their other flights to Honolulu.
In 2018 Sun Country Hawaii flights commenced from Portland, four-times weekly. Alaska, Delta and Hawaiian are the primary carriers there. Sun Country saw what they believed would be strong demand and relatively little competition as an opportunity to expand.
Sun Country also flew to Hawaii from MSP and LAX, seasonally, operating from Minneapolis to Honolulu, via Los Angeles, four times weekly. That LA to Honolulu air market is completely saturated, which was exacerbated by Southwest’s entrance.
Did Southwest Hawaii flights cause trouble for Sun Country Hawaii?
Sun Country entered an increasingly competitive West Coast market, just as behemoth Southwest Hawaii prepared to swoop in and launch its massive push into Oahu, Maui, the Big Island and Kauai.
The routes that Sun Country Hawaii flew were already well-served. And just how Hawaii-bound California and Oregon customers perceived LCC Sun Country, compared with Hawaii-centric Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines, popular Southwest Airlines and the legacy carriers, was always in doubt.
Moving in a different direction.
The low-cost-carrier, like Allegiant, focuses on cheap base fares with a range of extras. Last year they added Buffalo, Burlington, Charlston, Jacksonville, Pittsburgh and Spokane, to their roster, and Sun Country now serves 80 airports. To us, those additions may make a lot more sense than did Hawaii.
Complaints about Sun Country.
The airline has had more than its fair share of complaints. Last month they left customers stuck in Florida during unusual weather. But it was the passengers inability to speak with anyone at the airport or on the phone that rankled travelers and resulted in news coverage and bad reviews.
And that wasn’t even the first time the airline has left passengers stranded. Last winter, the airline was reported to have canceled dozens of flights due to a combination of an IT outage, bad weather, and Covid.
On the airline review website Skytrax, Sun Country scores 3 out of 10, while Southwest gets a 4, and Alaska and Hawaiian get a 5. Complaints there ranged from terrible customer service to “avoid at all cost.”
Sun Country led by Allegiant’s Jude Bricker
When Sun Country Hawaii flights were first announced, company president Jude Bricker said, “the addition of Honolulu to the family of Sun Country destinations gives our travelers the opportunity to experience the unique culture and history of Hawaii.”
As you may recall, Bricker was the Chief Operating Offer and “the brains” behind Allegiant’s desire to fly to Hawaii. We met Jude when Allegiant was preparing to come here, and we were impressed by him, his smarts and determination. His preferred model is one of basic low cost entry prices, together with a menu of discretionary charges.
The airline has had a series of issues that Bricker has had to deal with. Those included previously stranding 250 passengers in Mexico. Also, they made news for a failed attempt to change from employees to lower cost contractors for a myriad of ground services. These did nothing to inspire confidence within its loyal Minneapolis customer base, and they ultimately reverted to employees.
Contrasting Sun Country and Allegiant.
These two airlines aren’t birds of a feather. For example, Allegiant flew to Hawaii on old, unreliable and uncomfortable 757 aircraft when they attempted to serve Hawaii. Sun Country, however, used current generation 737-800 aircraft configured similarly to other airlines flying to Hawaii. These offer 150 economy seats with 31 to 33 inches of pitch and 12 first class seats with 37 to 39 inches.
About Sun Country.
Here’s how the airline defines itself: “Sun Country Airlines is a new breed of hybrid low-cost air carrier that dynamically deploys shared resources across our synergistic scheduled service, charter and cargo businesses. Based in Minnesota, we focus on serving leisure and visiting friends and relatives (‘VFR’) passengers and charter customers and providing CMI service to Amazon, with flights throughout the United States and to destinations in Mexico, Central America, Canada and the Caribbean.”
The 35 year old airline previously operated to Europe as well and had the all-important ETOPS certification required for over water flights to Hawaii. You may recall that both Allegiant and Southwest struggled to obtain ETOPS before entering the Hawaii market.
Through multiple owners and multiple fleets, Sun Country has often struggled to find a niche. It has incurred bankruptcies and a complete closure in 2001. Thereafter, a group of investors purchased the assets out of bankruptcy and Sun Country was restarted.
Since then, Sun Country moved to an all 737 fleet and started expanding operations on the mainland, and to Mexico. It suffered yet another bankruptcy and financial fraud. Since emerging from bankruptcy in 2011, the company has expanded and generally thrived.
In July 2017, Jude Bricker was appointed president and CEO of Sun Country. In December, they announced that the company was being sold by its current owners to Apollo Global Management. Sun Country is the largest privately owned airline in the United States, currently serving 2.5 million passengers yearly.