SunWest Airlines is an American low-cost airline headquartered in Phoenix, Arizona. It operates scheduled services to destinations across the United States, Mexico, and Canada. SunWest Airlines is not a member of any major airline alliance.
Sun West Airlines began in early 1980 with Piper Navajo Chieftain's on a Phoenix-Gallup-Farmington-Durango route, a route vacated by the original Frontier Airlines using 50-seat Convair 580's the year prior. Flights from Albuquerque to Gallup and Farmington began by October 26, 1980 and to Durango by mid-1981. Service was expanded from Phoenix to Flagstaff and Yuma the following year as well as a Phoenix-Winslow-Gallup-Albuquerque route. More flights were added on all Albuquerque routes after Frontier exited the markets in late 1981.
Sun West provided Essential Air Service for a time at Gallup, New Mexico and Winslow, Arizona. By June, 1983 Sun West had introduced the 14-seat Beechcraft 99 airliner but was then faced with intense competition by Air Midwest, Mesa, Pioneer, and Trans-Colorado Airlines on the Albuquerque to Farmington and Durango routes causing the carrier to retreat from these markets the following year. Service from Albuquerque and Phoenix to Tucson was also operated for brief periods in 1983. Sun West began a Phoenix-Prescott-Bullhead City-Las Vegas route in August 1, 1984 and modified it to a Phoenix-Lake Havasu City-Bullhead City-Ontario, CA route on March 1.
In early 1985, Sun West was struggling financially and on the brink of collapse. A private investment firm successfully bid for the airline, creating SunWest Airlines Holding Corporation. New leadership was installed, and SunWest Airlines began transitioning from a small regional carrier to a larger mainline airline. Using existing assets, SunWest abandoned it's point-to-point business model in favor of a hub-and-spoke model, operating services from it's Phoenix hub to destinations across the Southwestern United States. In 1986, SunWest acquired it's first jet aircraft, a former Republic Airlines Douglas DC-9-10.
SunWest gradually continued expanding into the late 1980s. By 1989, SunWest had sold off all propeller-driven aircraft, operating a jet-only fleet consisting of five DC-9-10 aircraft. Daily flights were operated from the airline's Phoenix base to major markets, such as Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, and Dallas.
In 1991, seeking to modernize its aging fleet and return to profitability, SunWest leased 20 Boeing 737-300 aircraft from International Lease Finance Corporation to replace their DC-9s. They also faced heavy competition, causing SunWest to adopt a low-cost model in an effort to sustain itself. The move paid off, and over the next several years, SunWest experienced continued growth and profitability.
In 1999, SunWest opened its first focus city at San Diego International Airport, with plans to eventually make it into a hub. Destinations from San Diego included Las Vegas, San Francisco, Portland, Reno, and Seattle.
By 2000, SunWest was operating a fleet of over 30 Boeing 737s. The growth of the late 1990s allowed the airline to add several eastern destinations, such as Minneapolis, Nashville, and Chicago. The airline also placed an order for 40 Boeing 737 Next Generation aircraft. In April 2001, SunWest announced plans to seek ETOPS approval for their Boeing 737NG aircraft and fly from San Diego to Honolulu. Service was expected to commence a year later, in April 2002.
SunWest's growth was halted by the September 11 terrorist attacks, causing the airline to scrap its Hawaiian expansion plans, remove San Diego as a focus city, and cut its fleet in half. In 2002, SunWest reduced its order of 40 Boeing 737NG aircraft to 20.
In October 2004, SunWest filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection while continuing normal operations. Seeking capital to stay afloat, SunWest began selling off slots and gates at major airports, including San Francisco and Los Angeles. The airline drastically reduced services to most east coast destinations, focusing solely on flights to major west coast cities. SunWest laid off and furloughed large portions of their workforce and outsourced several areas such as maintenance and baggage handling.
In May 2005, a court approved SunWest's reorganization plan, which included renegotiated contracts with flight crews, as well as restructured aircraft leases. On July 22, 2005, the company emerged from bankruptcy. The airline gradually reintroduced services to destinations it had cut during bankruptcy, starting with Chicago. Older Boeing 737-300 aircraft were replaced with more efficient Boeing 737NG aircraft.
In 2007, SunWest was ranked as one of the worst airlines in terms of customer satisfaction by a consumer report. On-time performance had also slipped, and according to the Department of Transportation, SunWest was ranked 16th out of 21 domestic airlines for on-time departures. Then-CEO Robert Egans vowed to improve these metrics and created an internal task force to do so. A "customer first" approach was adopted, and the entire customer service training department was overhauled. The airline also brought its maintenance back in-house, investing $15 million into new facilities. The strategy worked, and by 2009, SunWest has was ranked within the top 5 for both customer service and on-time departures.
In 2008, as more Boeing 737NG aircraft entered the fleet, SunWest began adding several east coast destinations. By the end of 2008, the airline was operating daily flights between New York, Boston, Baltimore, and Orlando.
In September 2011, SunWest placed an order for 10 additional Boeing 737-800 aircraft, as well as 15 Boeing 737-700 aircraft. The airline hoped to add new destinations, as well as increase frequencies for existing popular routes.
In early 2013, SunWest began expanding its Southern California presence by increasing the frequency of flights to Los Angeles, as well as adding service to Long Beach and Burbank. By 2014, the airline had also received approval to begin operating international flights, introducing service to Vancouver and Calgary.
SunWest continued to supplement its fleet growth through an aggressive leasing strategy that saw the airline acquire several second-hand aircraft from other carriers. The addition of available seats allowed SunWest to increase market share at its Phoenix hub from 11% to 15%.
In 2015, SunWest pledged to contribute $10 million over 5 years for renovations and improvements to Phoenix Sky Harbor's aging Terminal 4. These renovations included new self-service check-in kiosks, HVAC enhancements, and increased baggage handling capabilities. The renovations were completed in early 2020.
In 2016, SunWest announced most of its fleet would be equipped with GoGo Inflight Wi-Fi. While internet access is available at additional cost, an extensive library of movies, TV shows, music, and games became freely available for passengers to stream on their personal devices.
In 2017, SunWest and the Pac-12 Conference, a collegiate athletic conference made up of teams from around the western United States, announced a five-year partnership. The partnership gave SunWest exclusive branding opportunities at Pac-12 sporting events, as well as making the carrier an exclusive travel partner.
In early 2018, SunWest confirmed an order for 10 Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft, with an option for 10 more. Deliveries are scheduled to begin in 2022. The airline also continued to add Boeing 737NG aircraft on short and long-term leases, growing its fleet to 80 aircraft. In August 2018, SunWest announced its certification to begin operating military charter flights on behalf of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF).
In January 2019, SunWest filed an application with the FAA to begin ETOPS certification. No routes were specified, but the airline said it intended to begin serving Hawaii. In November 2019, SunWest was granted ETOPS approval.
In September 2019, SunWest announced it was opening new crew bases and hubs at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and San Jose Mineta (SJC). The airline said it intended to use these bass as the focus for its ETOPS operations. Service to Honolulu and Kahului were announced a few weeks later. By January 2020, SunWest had moved all its existing LAX operations to Terminal 6.
Despite entering 2020 with strong performance, the downturn in travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in record low load factors across the system. Careful, deliberate cost control and product ingenuity allowed SunWest to persevere through the industry crisis and even capitalize on opportunities as they arise. A reduction in passenger flying allowed the airline to convert 6 older aircraft to full freighter configurations to meet enhanced cargo demand. With the imminent entry into-service of new Boeing 737-MAX8 aircraft, it is expected that older model 737-700's and -800's will be converted to full freighters as they are replaced by MAX8's. The airline has also enhanced its cargo services aboard passenger jets as bin capacity allows.
In September 2020, it was reported that CEO Andrew De Forest was in talks to take over struggling rival airline California Pacific to further expand the airline's reach internationally and to Hawaii. Negotiations are ongoing.