Sun Country Airlines being sold to NY investment firm

Sun Country flight headed to Phoenix
A Sun Country Boeing 737-800 caught the fading rays of the Minnesota sun as it headed to Phoenix, Arizona from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in January, 2015. Canaan took this photo from the location that is now an official viewing spot.
Courtesy Emmanuel Canaan

Updated 4:11 p.m. | Posted 8:47 a.m.

Minnesota-based Sun Country Airlines said Thursday it's agreed to sell itself to Apollo Global Management, a New York City investment group.

Terms were not disclosed. Sun Country, the largest privately-held fully independent airline in the United States, is expected to keep its headquarters in state.

Mendota Heights-based Sun Country specializes in flying from cold weather locales to warm weather destinations. It flies about 2.5 million passengers per year. Earlier this year, the company unveiled plans to become a "no-frills" carrier.

Apollo is an investment firm with assets under management of about $242 billion, according to its statement. Apollo said the deal is targeted to close during the first quarter of 2018, pending regulatory approvals.

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Apollo praised Sun Country for its "brand presence" and community ties. "We are tremendously excited about the acquisition of Sun Country," Apollo partner Antoine Munfakh, said in a statement. "Sun Country presents compelling opportunities for innovation, efficiency and growth." Current CEO Jude Bricker will remain in that post, Apollo said.

The airline was bought by the Davis family, owners of Cambria Holdings, in 2011. The family's portfolio includes Cambria, a maker of quartz countertops. The family hails from St. Peter, Minn.

Sun Country Chair Marty Davis said Apollo has a proven track record for successfully helping companies grow. "We are confident the company is well-positioned for continued expansion and its evolution beyond its Minnesota base."

Apollo's CEO Leon Black founded the firm in 1990. Airline industry consultant Michael Boyd says it's a good sign that Sun Country caught Apollo's eye.

"This is an entity run by Leon Black. I don't know if he's ever made a mistake. He he only invests in things that are sure things, that they can turn around and grow," said Boyd. "So, for Sun Country this is meaningful."

Boyd sees Apollo having Sun Country compete for the discretionary travel market, those trips that people will take because their prices are enticing.

"Companies like Spirit, Allegiant, Frontier and, I think, Sun Country going forward are going be offering a product that will get people to go places when they wouldn't otherwise," he said. "They're going after getting people to spend money on travel when they would have otherwise spent it to buy a kitchen."

Regulatory reports indicate the carrier had net income of $16.3 million on revenue of $519 million last year.

Apollo and Sun Country declined comment beyond the sale statement.

The airline's powerful pilots union said it supports management's desire to increase Sun Country's fleet and employment and are eager to know more about the new owner's plans for the airline.

As part of its new fare structure, Sun Country will add to its fees for pre-assigned seats.

Starting next month, Sun Country will start charging customers on most flights a $30 fee for a carry-on bag. The airline said it introduced the fee to speed up aircraft boarding. Sun Country says they've been consistently slowed because so many travelers have carry-on bags.

Prior to its purchase by the Davis family, Sun Country went through a turbulent period.

In October, 2008, the company rushed into bankruptcy as the legal troubles of then-owner Tom Petters mounted. Petters was eventually convicted of perpetrating a $3.5 billion fraud on investors.

The bankruptcy filing allowed Sun Country to keep operating and protect itself from liquidation as part of the effort to raise money to compensate Petters' creditors and victims.

In the wake of 9/11, the company declared bankruptcy, stopped all but charter flying and laid off nearly its entire staff of 900 workers. By the following February the company had resumed flying a scaled-back schedule, and was eventually sold to a Minnesota-based investor group. Petters bought the airline in 2006.