Apr 23, 2024 - News

We tried the 21-minute flight to Eau Claire

A Sun Country jet in the air

These 737s fly into Eau Claire. Photo: AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

Before boarding the 21-minute MSP to Eau Claire flight, I asked the pilot if that day's 16 passengers on an 186-seat plane was normal.

He half-grinned and said, "This is full for us."

Why it matters: Despite its short time frame, passengers, airport officials, and Sun Country executives told me the federal grant that brought the low-cost carrier to Chippewa Valley Regional Airport 16 months ago has been a big win for the community 90 miles east of Minneapolis.

The big picture: The U.S. DOT subsidizes carriers through its Essential Air Service (EAS) program at what would be money-losing cities to better serve rural populations. It includes more than 100 airports.

  • In the case of Eau Claire, Sun Country is getting $6.5 million a year to fly to MSP and three other cities. It's the airport's only carrier.

Yes, but: The MSP to Eau Claire trip is different from most EAS flights given the planes' size.

  • Every other airline subsidized by the program flies aircraft that carry fewer than 76 passengers. Most of them use 30-seat planes.
  • Minneapolis-based Sun Country uses its Boeing 737-800s, which require four flight attendants because of FAA rules for plane capacity.

How it works: The plane reached its cruising altitude of 7,000 feet within the first few minutes, which is about 30,000 feet lower than most flights.

  • However, it was close enough to get great views of rolling farmland and braided rivers.
  • The flight attendants asked if we had any trash about 10 minutes in. No time for snacks or drinks.
  • Then they prepared to land.

The intrigue: This seemed silly and surreal to me and several passengers I talked to, but all of them loved the service.

  • An elderly couple in front of me was on their way back from Texas and glad they didn't have to drive into MSP and pay for parking.

Between the lines: This service isn't meant to connect people in Eau Claire to the Twin Cities — driving would be faster. It's for the connections at MSP.

  • Sun Country also added seasonal service from EAU to Fort Myers, Orlando, and Las Vegas, which the company's chief revenue officer Grant Whitney said have been highly popular. Those flights have been between 74% and 82% of capacity.
  • The MSP to EAU flight also has better numbers during spring break and the summer, he added.

By the numbers: In 2023, the first full year with Sun Country, the Eau Claire airport had its best year since 2004.

What they're saying: EAU airport director Charity Zich said Sun Country's arrival timed perfectly with the post-pandemic leisure travel surge.

  • The airport's previous carrier was more focused on business passengers and only flew to Chicago.

What's ahead: Sun Country plans to bid again for the Eau Claire grant, which expires Nov. 30.

  • It's also been bidding on other Midwest cities, Whitney said, but so far has not been selected by DOT.

✈️ 3 hours in Eau Claire

Phoenix Park with a bridge over a creek and a music venue in the background
Phoenix Park in Eau Claire, with the Pablo Center at the Confluence event center in the background. Photo: Nick Halter/Axios

I spent just three hours in Eau Claire before hopping on a 25-minute return flight to MSP. While I wouldn't recommend that tight of a turnaround, I would definitely recommend visiting this city for a quick road trip.

Catch up quick: I graduated from UW-Eau Claire in 2008 and the community — especially downtown — has seen a wave of new restaurants and breweries in recent years.

  • That's been driven in part by a new city park on the river, a new performing arts center, and the opening of a downtown office by software company JAMF.

Where to stay: The renovation of two hotels — The Lismore and Oxbow — has provided a much-needed lodging upgrade for the city.

  • The latter is co-owned by Bon Iver frontman/UWEC grad Justin Vernon and has a music theme.

Where to eat and drink: Dinner at The Livery (great patio), beers at The Brewing Projekt (an even better patio), and a nightcap at the rooftop bar at The Lismore.

What to do: Stroll the idyllic lower UWEC campus along the river, bike the Chippewa River State Trail, or drive 20 minutes north for a Leinenkugel's Brewery tour.

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