Sun Country Airlines passengers may soon hear "Welcome aboard Lake Minnetonka!" as they settle into their seats.
The Eagan-based airline is honoring its home state by naming each of its airplanes after a different Minnesota lake. Sun Country hopes the project endears itself to its customers and that it promotes the state to people in other markets.
"Our ultimate goal is certainly to signify we are Minnesota's hometown airline. Our core is here. Our fans are here," said Kelsey Dodson-Smith, vice president of marketing. "And then for those who might be traveling from our outstate markets, encouraging them to visit and to see why we love this place."
Sun Country unveiled its first named airplane, Lake Bemidji, Tuesday morning at its hangar at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
Each lake name will appear outside the plane on both the sides of the cockpit. Minneapolis artist Mark Herman designed a unique piece of artwork for each lake that will appear in two places inside the cabin. Customers will be greeted during preflight announcements with the plane's lake name.
Sun Country currently has 22 planes in its fleet. It commissioned Herman to illustrate 25 lakes so the airline will have a few on reserve as it adds new aircraft.
The collection includes lakes from across the state and several in the Twin Cities. Included are several of Minneapolis' busy urban lakes, like Lake Harriet and Lake Nokomis. Sun Country did not include Lake Calhoun, the city's biggest lake, which is also recognized by its Dakota name Bde Maka Ska. The lake's name has been the subject of debate in recent years with both the name Calhoun and Bde Maka Ska currently appearing on signage at the lake.
"We didn't want to dedicate a whole plane and artwork if [the name] wasn't going to stay that way," Dodson-Smith said.
Herman's landmark-based artwork is recognizable to many Minnesotans. His illustrations, reminiscent of midcentury travel posters, are sold at boutiques and museums across the state. Herman's style aligned exactly with what Sun Country wanted.
"A lot of times, art directors basically want you to illustrate what is in their head, so when the project is done you don't even know it was done by an illustrator who may be known for a certain style," Herman said. This project was so comfortable because it is what I do anyway."
Herman has created more than 90 illustrations of landmarks, parks and points of interest throughout Minnesota alone. This last fall, Sun Country gave him a list of all the lakes they wanted him to draw with just a few weeks to reach some of them before winter set in.
Herman and his elderly father embarked on several weekend road trips, driving to four or five lakes in a day, photographing the scenery and looking for one landmark, like a lighthouse, a bridge or a beach structure, that would capture each lake's mood.
He worked on the drawings during the early winter months, giving Sun Country four drawings per lake. The decals will be added to each airplane as it is due for routine maintenance checks and all should have their lake name attached in the next few months.
"We are trying to break it in right before lake season," Dodson-Smith said.
While putting up decals and art seems fairly straightforward, Sun Country President and CEO Zarir Erani said it took a lot more work.
"You wouldn't even realize it, but artwork on the plane needs to go through a lot of certifications," Erani said, including burn tests and toxic fume tests.
In a few of Sun Country's lake picks, like Lake George, there's more than one lake in Minnesota with that name. Passengers will see a landmark in the image to signify which lake it is. (The buildings in the Lake George illustration suggest it's the one in St. Cloud.)
Other U.S. airlines have created specialty livery — an industry term for a plane's exterior paint job — or developed campaigns to represent hub cities or states with a significant customer base. Southwest Airlines is perhaps the most committed to its geography-specific paint jobs, with 11 airplanes donning the flag colors from various U.S. states. Icelandair names its planes for volcanoes in its home country.
And Minnesota's lakes have been selected for other corporate uses. The suites at Target Field are named for the state's lakes. Many companies and hotels use lake names to identify meeting rooms.
As for how Sun Country selected which of the thousands of Minnesota lakes to feature, Dodson-Smith said they were looking for the right mix.
"We wanted to make sure we had lakes from different parts of Minnesota," she said. "Some of the bigger lakes that are more well-known and some we just fell in love with, like Lake of the Clouds, which couldn't be more perfect for us."
Kristen Leigh Painter • 612-673-4767