Sun Country cuts premium seats, loyalty in quest for higher revenue

This story is produced in partnership with PaxEx.Aero - The Business of Passenger Experience

Sun Country‘s pivot to a ULCC continues unabated. More than a year after the carrier announced plans for a new approach to the market the changes continue. Up next: further cabin reconfiguration and a revamp of the loyalty and co-brand credit card strategy.

In August 2017 the carrier announced intention to drop half of its first class seats. At the time other soft-touch amenities were cut back, with CEO Jude Bricker noting that “What people pay us for is the big seat.” Turns out not so many wanted to pay even for that anymore. The carrier now intends to remove the first class cabin entirely from its planes according to a Flight Global report.

Shifting Loyalty

While the cabin retrofit is significant the loyalty program changes will affect far more Sun Country passengers. The revised program focuses heavily on the co-brand credit card to drive loyalty. Tying loyalty to cards is not new, of course, but the Sun Country approach appears somewhat heavy-handed relative to the rest of the program.

As of January 2019 the card will earn 3x on spend with the airline, 2x on gas & groceries and 1x on all other purchases. The benefits available when traveling also change.

Currently the card holder and all passengers booked on the same reservation receive a waiver of the first checked bag fee. On 2 January 2019 that benefit drops to a 50% discount on the bag fee. The bag fee must be paid in advance to receive the discount; currently the waiver comes from presentation of the physical card at the airport. Starting in January flashing the card at the gate will grant priority boarding and presenting it to a flight attendant gets a free drink on board. Advance seat assignments will also receive a 50% discount for card holders going forward.

Flight Global also reports that earning for flights will be 10 points per dollar for card holders versus 2 per dollar for all other members. That data point remains unclear on the new website.

The program will also institute a hard expiry of points older than 36 months effective in January 2019. This is waived for co-brand credit card holders. The new expiry policy applies to all points in accounts today.

The company is also dropping its pooling program, in advance of a relaunch next year.

Other changes to the program include adjusting the redemption levels to a 100 points per dollar from the current variable rate of 120-130 per dollar. That is a small win for program members in the face of significant program downgrades.

Does it matter?

The program was never particularly compelling. Sun Country saw loyalty as a loss-leader, not a compelling part of the operation. Most of the elite tier members (before the program was killed off) earned the status without flying. The value of the rewards was relatively low compared to the earn rate.

The new program adds several new benefits to the credit card (while removing others). Sun Country bought in to the concept of co-brand value in a big way. But that co-brand value depends on the core loyalty offer being compelling. Without that, co-brand is a big investment that returns minimal value to the bank and the brand. This new Sun Country Rewards program appears headed towards that end.

Header Image: Sun Country 737 by Bill Larkins via Flickr/CC BY-SA

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.