By Joey Gerardi
Trip Report: Sun Country Inaugural at Eau Claire
Minneapolis-based Sun Country Airlines has been expanding a lot recently with a major announcement a couple of weeks ago adding 12 new destinations to their route map. However, out of all the destinations they could’ve announced, Eau Claire, Wis. is not one I would place bets on.
SkyWest under the United Express branding — that probably sounds like a broken record — requested to terminate 29 Essential Air Service communities back in the spring of 2022, and Eau Claire, Wis. was one of them. So, they —along with the other 28 communities started the EAS bidding process — with many of them having decisions made by now and others having already started the service on new carriers.
The EAS contract in Eau Claire is one of the more interesting ones with Sun Country being selected. This makes Eau Claire — the only EAS community in the lower 48 — to have regularly scheduled flights on a Boeing 737. It’s Sun Country’s first and only EAS contract, and when Eau Claire to Las Vegas starts, it will become the longest EAS route in the entire country.
This was an inaugural flight to an EAS community on a really short flight with a larger plane, a turn in the middle of the day with no overnight in Eau Claire required, and a round-trip fare of less than $30 from Minneapolis. This unique combination of items made it so AvGeeks from around the Midwest and even around the country flocked to Sun Country’s hub to experience this unique flight, making it an AvGeek experience like no other.
The day before my flight I tried to check in online, but when I hit the ’email mobile boarding pass’ option on the site, all it did was send me an email of my trip confirmation and no boarding pass. I figured it was a mistake I made so I tried it again, but it still didn’t work, so instead of getting a mobile boarding pass my trip confirmation was re-emailed to me about five more times before I gave up. So I had to get my boarding pass at the counter on the day of the flight.
As mentioned previously, this was an AvGeek hotspot event with many coming in from different parts of the country, and as such, I was meeting quite a few of them there to talk about geeky stuff. I arrived earlier than I needed to for a flight like this, three hours prior, so that I could converse with the others going on the trip and head to the gate.
For the inaugural flight, it departed Minneapolis mid-day during a pretty relaxed time within the Sun Country schedule. Meaning with not many other Sun Country flights departing around this time the check-in area was completely empty of passengers. When this flight changes times it will be leaving within a busy Sun Country bank time, making it harder to get a printer boarding pass with their online check-in not working correctly, so hopefully they can get this issue fixed.
I was able to get a printed boarding pass since the mobile version was never sent, and they were also able to print my boarding pass for the return flight. This second return boarding pass confused the agent, but I explained what I was doing, and she mentioned she has already seen a couple of people with cameras pass by.
With the departure occurring in an empty non-existent flight bank, security was a breeze, especially with TSA PreCheck, which the airline participates in airports. Along with this empty flight area, it also meant a pretty empty gate area too, except for the bunch of AvGeeks that had the same idea I did and arrived early.
It wasn’t long before the aircraft arrived, N834SY, a Boeing 737-800 that previously belonged to FlyDubai and had taken its last flight three days prior. With inaugurals, airlines like to try and have that aircraft ready to go as they don’t want delays on the very first flight, especially with events that are covered as much as this one by media and AvGeeks alike.
By this time, more people had shown up for the flight and I began talking with the passengers. It seemed that a majority, if not all of the passengers on this flight going to Eau Claire fit into one of four groups; AvGeeks doing this for fun, people from the media, whether it is local or regional, Sun Country employees that have confirmed tickets on the flight, or non-revenue employees of the airline. It was a very low and possibly non-existent number of people going to Eau Claire that weren’t already aware of the flight’s significance before they showed up at the gate.
Just to give you a clue on how close Eau Claire is to Minneapolis; the flight is 85 miles direct between the cities, and driving between them is 90 miles and can be accomplished in under 1.5 hours. One or two of the AvGeeks on this trip drove in from Eau Claire to Minneapolis that morning, will take the flight to Eau Claire and back to Minneapolis just to be on the inaugural, and then will drive back to Eau Claire after the flight is over.
One of the eligibility requirements for EAS communities is that they have to be 70-highway-miles or more from the nearest medium or large hub airport, and with Minneapolis being 90 miles away they technically do make that requirement, and they aren’t even the closest EAS city to a hub. But they are one of the few that are this close to a hub and connect the flight to the closest hub.
Roughly 10 minutes before boarding started I finally got an email, five of them in fact, with mobile boarding passes that I had asked the website to send me almost 24 hours prior, seems like a glitch in the website that they need to fix. If someone was stuck at the counter without a boarding pass at all, it wouldn’t help them when they receive it almost a full day later.
With all of the talking between new and old friends, we hardly realized how fast time passed and boarding time came around. They started the boarding process 40 minutes before departure time, despite the fact there were only actually 45-people on the flight, meaning they could’ve boarded everyone in 30-second increments and still had time to spare.
I choose seat 6F for both flights, just behind the seats the airline designates as “Best” which are rows 1-5, but far enough forward to get a good shot of the engine and wings.
As we started boarding so early with not many people, all the AvGeeks on board got cameras in hand and began documenting this occasion. We talked with each other for the rest of the boarding process which was pretty empty given most of us were already on the plane. The plane was really empty, but most of the window seats in the front half of the plane were taken leaving most of the aisle and middle seats empty except for those traveling with someone else.
Safety demonstration and pushback exactly at our scheduled departure time, 11:25 a.m., and the taxi to the runway took roughly ten minutes. We took off at 11:38 a.m. towards Eau Claire, Wis.
As far as the flight goes, there wasn’t anything special about the short flight to Eau Claire. No service due to the short flight, and the entertainment didn’t work, since we cruised below 10,000 feet, at 6,800 feet. Even if entertainment worked, the flight was too short, so we just looked out of the window and enjoyed the sights on the way to Eau Claire.
It did give me a chance to check out the features left by the former operator of this aircraft, FlyDubai while including the blue bulkhead walls. And the walls were inconsistent with only some of them having the blue ‘ocean water’ look on them. It’s not like they didn’t have time to remove it with Sun Country taking possession of this plane in May of 2019, it has most likely been through the refitting shop multiple times since then. Another unique feature from the previous airline is the words ‘Exit’ also being written in Arabic in multiple parts of the cabin.
It wasn’t long before we began our short and quick descent into Eau Claire, with the airport appearing out of the right side of the cabin.
It wasn’t long before we touched down in Eau Claire at exactly noon after a 22-minute hop from Minneapolis.
Out of the window, you could see the jetway we were going to use, which was at a larger angle than it usually was when United served this airport on the Bombardier CRJ-200s.
Even though most of us on the plane were heading back to Minneapolis on this same plane, we still needed to get off. We didn’t need to go through security again as long as we stayed in the secured gate area, but a TSA officer said that there was a celebration as well as goodie bags and a ceremony that was being held in the lobby before security and we could go out if we wanted to. He also offered to send some goodie bags through security for those of us that didn’t want to leave to go to the ceremony.
The airport was fully expecting many AvGeeks to show up on this flight given the unique aspect of it and prepared for it, which was obvious given the previously mentioned conversation with the TSA agent. There were balloons set up around the ticket counter and a separate room off the lobby which featured goodie bags, mini cupcakes, chips, and a number of other items.
It wasn’t long before the large crowd of people gathered around the Airport director and Sun Country’s Senior Vice President for some quick speeches, which were then followed by a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Another AvGeek item I managed to get that nobody else got is part of the ceremonial ribbon, I try to get a part of the ribbon from every inaugural I attend and I was able to acquire one from the 46th EAS community I have been to; which is this community.
Directly after the ribbon ceremony, I needed to head back through security as the flight back was already boarding, luckily Eau Claire had a TSA PreCheck lane, which helped considering most of the AvGeeks on this flight were in the regular security lane making my transit back to the gate much easier with all of the camera gear I was traveling with.
For the flight back to Minneapolis there were 59 passengers, and some of them were folks that didn’t know about the special occasion beforehand and were making connections to other Sun Country flights in Minneapolis.
Another interesting aspect of this airport, is they had no gate numbers, but instead gate letters, with us departing from ‘Gate B’.
The pilots welcomed us all back on board and we left the gate after a slower-than-average pushback. This was due to the fact the agents here in Eau Claire were still training in the pushback of a larger plane, so they took it slower, which is good.
We did leave the gate a little late, but this is to be expected for a first flight and especially one with this much celebration and local press at the airport covering the event. The scheduled departure was 1 p.m., we pushed back from the gate at roughly 1:12 p.m., so not that much later.
It is so fascinating seeing an aircraft this big operate at a terminal this small, especially considering it is an EAS airport.
We took to the skies at 1:20 p.m. and began making our quick flight back to Minneapolis. The flight back really wasn’t special either, although we did get a little higher than before going up to 11,800 feet.
The WiFi did kick on at 10,000 feet, but it wasn’t even worth connecting to it. By the time you got something to start playing, you’d be below 10,000 again and it would turn off. Despite that, the flight attendant still made the announcement of “there are many hours of tv and streaming options available…” which most of us found amusing given our short flight time.
On the flight back I also noticed the USB posts underneath the seats, which would help for longer flights, but again given this short flight there was really no need for it.
It wasn’t long before we landed in Minneapolis at 1:46 p.m. after 26 minutes of flying time, bringing us into Minneapolis one minute behind our originally scheduled arrival time. With flights scheduled as 45 minutes and actual flight time being around 25, it doesn’t leave much room for error in the winter when they need to be de-iced. Eau Claire won’t be a problem, but when the weather is bad and de-ice lines are long in Minneapolis it might create problems down the line for passengers.
After getting off the plane, I and a few of the AvGeeks that hadn’t already disappeared into the now-crowded terminal got a group photo, before we all went our separate ways. Going on these trips is fun, but going on them with other like-minded AvGeeks can be a fun and unique experience like no other. It is about the people you meet and make friends with along the way as well as the planes and flights you go on and am so glad I got others to go with me on an inaugural flight to an EAS community.
This unique flight to Eau Claire definitely is something to behold, where the boarding process in Minneapolis is twice the time of actual flying time to the destination. While this route will help some people, I do think the fact they chose Sun Country to operate it will deter some of the frequent and business travelers from using Eau Claire as an option. Not because they are Sun Country, but the fact, they will only operate flights four times a week to Minneapolis, which is the connecting hub.
While they will operate flights from Eau Claire to Orlando, Ft. Myers, Fla. and Las Vegas in the coming months, these flights will be geared towards leisure travelers and not those connecting and the less-than-daily flights to a connecting hub will hurt the business traveler aspect of the airport and those that need to travel on days Sun Country doesn’t have flights. I assume those individuals will probably drive to other airports that do offer connecting flights and more than daily options and might even drive directly to Minneapolis for their travels.
At the same time, I believe with the EAS subsidies they are getting for these routes might make the cost of flights to the leisure destinations less costly out of Eau Claire than out of Minneapolis. This might make some people drive to Eau Claire for flights. So, while it will hurt one aspect of travel, I do believe it will help the other hopefully making this route a success. Although success is wanted, the subsidies will definitely help the route and cost-effectiveness from Sun Country’s aspect.
As said by Eau Claire’s airport director, “If you had told me back in March when we started this airline transition process, that it would culminate with a Sun Country 737 sitting on our ramp, I would’ve said they were crazy, but here we are”. I honestly agree with her, nobody could have predicted this happening, and I’m sure nobody had flown on Sun Country to Eau Claire, Wis. on their 2022 bingo sheet.
A video account of this trip can be found below.