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How a pandemic pivot helped save Sun Country Airlines

How a pandemic pivot helped save Sun Country Airlines
How a pandemic pivot helped save Sun Country Airlines 03:25

MINNEAPOLIS – Sun Country Airlines is poised to take off with more aircraft and more crew members. 

And by February, it will be flying to 12 different destinations in Florida alone.

Jude Bricker is the CEO, which could stand for "Chief Enthusiasm Officer."

"I can't think of a time where I've been more excited about the airline I was working for than I am right now with Sun Country," Bricker said.

He landed the job in 2017. While he's excited these days, he says the pandemic came close to grounding the hometown carrier for good.

"There were three moments in time where it was near-death experiences for us through that COVID experience," he said.

Revenue dropped from record highs to near zero, and there were times when Bricker thought the end was near. But then he had an idea.

They removed the seats from passenger planes and began operating as a cargo carrier for Amazon, just as people went crazy ordering online.

"If you're outside the industry to take a passenger airline and make it a cargo airline in a period of 12 months is amazing," Bricker said. "I didn't do that, these guys all around this hangar did that. It was amazing."

Jude Bricker CBS

Things weren't so sunny coming out of COVID though. The rapid surge in travelers last spring left airlines scrambling to rapidly ramp up flights, and left many passengers high and dry.

Since then, Sun Country has upgraded its IT systems and call center, and the pilots have a new contract. Ramp and maintenance personnel also earn competitive wages now, according to Brinker.

But the real challenge comes with understanding the essence of this unique airline. Sun Country experiences a dramatic surge in the winter and over spring break.

"We're an airline designed for the Minnesota traveler," he said.

So when school starts in September and business goes way down, Sun Country finds other ways to pay the bills, like flying the Gopher football team, major league soccer teams and military personnel.

"Everyday's different then every other day, and that's what I keep telling the guys here. This is what's gonna differentiate us. But it's also gonna make us long-term successful because it's so hard to do, no one else can do it," he said.

Sun Country has been in business for 40 years now, and Bricker says over those four decades, they've stayed true to their Minnesota roots.

"We're small enough that I can know most of my employees. You know, it's like a family here. It's a really special, something really special. We'll grow out of that like all companies do, but it's just a really fun place right now. It's really nice," he said. "I'm proud of my people, and I'm proud of what they've been able to accomplish."

Bricker believes Sun Country will be about 50% larger in 2023 than the carrier was in 2019.

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