Sun Country Airlines is a leisure-focused airline headquartered near the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The airline was founded in 1983 by a small group of pilots and flight attendants, the very people who love flying. Today, Sun Country Airlines remains proud of its Minnesota hometown roots as it operates as a low-cost carrier guided by its singular passion – to safely and effectively help people connect with their favorite people and places to create memories that matter.
As Sun Country Airlines looked to the future, it was interested in becoming a more data-driven organization to better support growth.
Sun Country recognized the benefits of integrating data to drive intelligent business decisions. “We wanted a modern data platform that could provide cross-analytics with revenue and other key data elements from different areas within the organization,” noted Matt Bayless, Sun Country Airlines' manager of enterprise data.
Bayless and other business leaders knew that providing stakeholders with improved access to timely data and the tools to analyze it would position them to improve operational efficiency and optimize customer pricing and product offerings.
The team also knew the transformation to a data-driven organization would require Sun Country to evaluate legacy systems and architecture. Ultimately, this evaluation led to a business-critical project with two highly interrelated aspects:
- Replacing the legacy booking system with a new reservation booking system, Navitaire.
- At the same time, seizing the opportunity to modernize the airline’s entire data platform.
“This wasn’t a one-off project to get Navitaire launched. And this wasn’t just BI analytics. This was about bringing everything together with a data platform that lives in Azure,” said Bayless. Navitaire had tremendous potential to serve Sun Country’s present and future needs, but its out-of-the-box reporting capabilities could not fully meet Sun Country’s desire to truly transform into a data-driven organization.
“We had a data platform, but it was not designed to scale. We took the opportunity to step back and ensure we have a solid foundation to support growth for years to come.”
Ben Schulze, Senior Director of Operations Application Development, Sun Country Airlines
That’s one reason data-platform modernization was essential. Only with modernization could Sun Country take a robust business-intelligence approach to its new booking system and create a unified reporting solution from data to storage that would:
- provide better data access, visibility and insights to internal business customers
- be supported by a robust, secure, scalable and flexible data platform
- allow reporting for both commercial and operational reports
- enable customer reporting based on user preferences
- provide meaningful business insights and allow for sharing of these insights
- encourage user adoption
Given these business needs and considerations around cost effectiveness and scalability, Sun Country was particularly interested in evaluating if a cloud-based data platform would better serve its long-term business needs than an on- premises solution. “We shifted our technology mentality from hosting on prem, to having a server at Databank, to interest in the cloud,” commented Bayless.
Sun Country contacted Microsoft as it sought to partner with a local technology professional services firm that could accommodate on-site support throughout the implementation. Microsoft connected Sun Country with Concurrency given Concurrency’s vast experience helping organizations with cloud-based data modernization implementations and ability to provide on-site support.
Concurrency was honored to partner with Sun Country on this project, especially because Concurrency knew that a cloud-based modern data platform would position the airline to leverage data-driven insights to better understand customer behavior and buying decisions, gain a competitive advantage, and improve operational efficiency.
Concurrency kicked off the project with a series of in-depth on-site workshops that included stakeholders from internal IT, marketing, finance and operations. These meetings included an intensive technical discovery process to define project scope and identify Sun Country’s needs:
- provide support for existing daily reporting needs not available through the new booking system
- define a complete view of the customer leveraging data from Navitaire
- leverage collected data to define product offerings and establish the right price at the customer level
- build a solution that enables future data additions, both internal and third-party data
- leverage tools that business teams are familiar with to encourage user adoption
- ensure support for commercial and operational reporting
- include technology that will enable future machine learning capabilities and enable advanced analytics such as product pricing elasticity and prescriptive and predictive recommendations
Concurrency assigned an experienced project team that included a project manager, technical architect and solutions architect. These team members were on-site at Sun Country weekly throughout the implementation to provide necessary project support.
“We were impressed with the Concurrency team. They listened well, made a real effort to learn about our business and what we were trying to accomplish, and had the right resources to make it successful. We also work really well face-to-face and really appreciated the amount of time they spent on-site,” stated Schulze.
Concurrency’s on-site presence proved critical to the success of the project, especially since the team had an aggressive implementation timeline to ensure the new modern data platform was ready to go live on the same date as the Navitaire reservation system.
“This was a very large, visible project for us. We went from an empty Azure subscription to a data platform being released in about three and a half months,” commented Bayless.
The Concurrency team built a solution that enables future data additions—from both internal systems and third-party partners. Concurrency did so leveraging reporting tools that were already familiar to Sun Country’s business-line users to help maximize adoption.
Sun Country and Concurrency also partnered together to build out Power BI reports and associated data model(s) together with technology integrations with existing, familiar business tools. The company introduced the Power BI tool to end users through a series of training sessions, walk-throughs and an open house to encourage and support user adoption.
As a cloud-based managed infrastructure solution, the new approach emphasizes security and flexibility for future growth—in scalability, the addition of more data sources, and the potential to apply additional advanced analytical processes such as machine learning models to achieve prescriptive and/or predictive modeling.
Project Technical Highlights
Azure infrastructure creation & configurations
Azure Data Factory, Data Lake, Databricks, and SQL Server
Power BI configuration and building reports in Power BI
Sun Country established a new data foundation with its modern data platform implementation and the results can be seen throughout the organization:
A cost effective, scalable, flexible data platform: “We wanted a modern data platform that was cost-effective and we liked the fact that Azure has a pay-as-you-go mentality and it can scale as we need it to,” stated Bayless. “This is critical because the more money we save, the more value we can provide to our customers.”
Power BI empowers Sun Country’s business teams to make data-driven decisions: “We changed our approach with how our user community interacts with data because we’re empowering users to build their own reports using a certified data set and offering self-service for reporting and data visualization,” stated Bayless. “Power BI represents a shift in how we deliver data and collaborate with teams and it provides a competitive advantage as we follow trends and take actions from these business insights.”
Sun Country has more timely access to data: Sun Country had a 2-day lag on data with its former data warehouse. With its new modern data platform, employees have data from the previous day available the moment they arrive at work.
A fresh start for business reporting: “We were able to weed out some of the legacy ways of doing business. We no longer create reports because that’s the way we’ve done it for years,” commented Bayless. “We have a new way to think about data in the organization and we wouldn’t have been able to do that if we simply plugged our new reservation system into our legacy data warehouse.”
Bring information together for better marketing decision-making: Sun Country can better analyze who it is selling tickets to in order to better inform marketing campaigns, pricing strategies and product offerings, including key ancillary products such as seat assignments and baggage. “In our previous data model, demographic information was stored at the reservation level, not the ticket level, we brought this together and are already seeing the value,” noted Lisa Krieg, Sun Country Airlines' senior manager of distribution planning non-air.
In addition to these results, Sun Country’s modern data platform provides a strong foundation for the future. “Our first step in this journey was gaining better access to passenger information,” noted Schulze. “Next, we want to work towards more visibility into operations and we’ll look to layer this information on to get a more complete picture of our customers.” Sun Country Airlines will also look to incorporate predictive analytics and machine learning to better predict operational patterns and proactively leverage data to make necessary adjustments. The sky’s the limit now that a truly modern data platform is in place.