The loan, which is part of the emergency airline aid package approved in March, allows Sun Country to receive federal assistance without having to tap big backers such as Amazon and Apollo for the additional help. The airline applied for the funding through the normal Treasury process and put up its loyalty rewards program as collateral, according to Treasury.
Such rewards programs generate significant cash for airlines through commissions they receive from banks when members use affiliated credit cards, said John Grant, a senior analyst with OAG.
“In the wake of this unprecedented crisis, our management team has explored every possible avenue to conserve, hold, and access cash in order to ensure a sustainable business for our nearly 1,600 employees and their families while we wait for travel demand and revenue to return,” the company said in a statement to The Washington Post.
Sun Country applied for the loan in April, and it was approved in late October. The new government aid will help the company maintain cash reserves during a prolonged period of decreased demand for air travel. Funds affiliated with Apollo purchased the airline in 2017. Amazon, which reported its biggest profit ever during the pandemic, acquired a partial stake in Sun Country in 2019.
“Sun Country went through the same vetting process as all other U.S. airlines to determine our qualification for the loan and the size of the loan,” the company said. “Sun Country received less than 10% of its 2019 revenue, the smallest allocation in relation to its revenue among top airlines.”
Apollo had no role in Sun Country’s Treasury loan application, both the airline and Apollo said, and a Treasury spokesperson said the agency had no contact with Apollo regarding the airline’s loan application. A Sun Country spokeswoman said Amazon had no involvement in the loan. Amazon, whose founder Jeff Bezos owns The Post, did not respond to a request for comment.
The airline loan shows how complicated the government’s bailout process remains, 10 months after the coronavirus pandemic first appeared in the United States. Congress has authorized almost $3 trillion in emergency aid to address the economic fallout, and many of those programs have already run their course. But some programs, such as the one that gives aid to aviation firms, remain ongoing and can benefit cash-rich investors.
Some of the beneficiaries of the new government loans, even indirectly, are large, private equity companies, whose holdings have been hammered by the economic downturn and used government aid to prop up their investments. The sheer amount of money being spent and the wide discretion executive branch officials have in granting it have made it difficult for Congress and other watchdogs to track where the relief is going.
Progressive advocates and watchdog groups criticized the loan to Sun Country, noting that extra aid to the unemployed has long expired, states and municipalities are struggling to balance their budgets, and protections for renters and student borrowers are set to end soon without federal action.
“Amazon has had huge sales during this pandemic,” said Mariah Montgomery, national campaign director at the Partnership for Working Families. “Treasury should be providing no-interest loans to states and municipalities and more support for the small businesses, especially Black and Brown small businesses, that Amazon puts in jeopardy all the time and particularly during the pandemic."
Antoine Munfakh, a senior partner at Apollo, sits on the board of directors for Sun Country, which had 1,630 employees as of March.
Sun Country is at least the second firm with ties to Apollo to benefit from government aid. In July, the Treasury Department made a $700 million loan to YRC Worldwide, a struggling trucking company backed by Apollo. The government loan is under scrutiny by the bipartisan Congressional Oversight Commission, which is overseeing Treasury’s disbursement of coronavirus relief funding. Amber Venzon, chief clerk of the commission, said the panel is reviewing all of the Treasury loans to airlines.
Apollo has close ties to the White House. One of its founders, Joshua Harris, advised the administration on infrastructure policy in 2017, the New York Times reported. Later that year, Apollo lent $184 million to the family real estate company of top White House official Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, to help it refinance its mortgage on a Chicago skyscraper.
Apollo has had a strong 2020, according to its financial results. The company had $433 billion in total assets under management at the end of September, up $102 billion from one year earlier.
The loan to Sun Country is one of 21 that the Treasury Department has granted to the aviation industry, using a $25 billion pot of money set up by Congress as part of the Cares Act. The amount given to Sun Country is a small fraction of the amounts lent to larger companies such as American Airlines and United, which have been approved for loans up to $7.5 billion each.
Sun Country’s business consists of commercial flights between the United States and warm-weather international vacation destinations, transporting cargo for Amazon, and charter flights. In the months after the pandemic hit, as lawmakers negotiated a bailout for the aviation industry, Sun Country tripled the amount it spent on federal lobbying per quarter, from $30,000 to $90,000, according to public disclosures.
Sun Country said that as a Minnesota-based company, it previously had little representation in Washington and had hired lawyers “to try to understand what was going on in government” in the chaotic first few months of the pandemic.
“We needed guidance on supporting the Cares Act passage and navigating the various agencies and applications," the company said.
Sun Country has outperformed the rest of the airline industry in recent months, turning a small pretax profit between April and June. It also received $62 million in earlier federal relief funding set aside to help airlines pay their workers, which hundreds of other aviation companies also received. Sun Country announced last month that it was cutting a little more than 100 jobs, or about 7 percent of its workforce, largely through attrition and hiring freezes.
The company attributed its performance this year to aggressive cost-cutting and its growing cargo business. The payroll support “was based on a formula set by the government, matching our payroll and used exclusively to keep and pay our employees,” the company said.
In recent, pre-pandemic times, aviation analysts said, Sun Country had landed on a profitable and sustainable business model, especially after being purchased by Apollo in 2017.
“They have what would normally be considered quite a successful operating model that de-risked their position,” Grant said.
Treasury’s loan places some restrictions on Sun Country based on the requirements of the Cares Act, including limits on stock buybacks, dividends and executive compensation. But a requirement that recipients of the Treasury loans maintain the employment levels they had in March expired in September, which means it does not apply to Sun Country’s loan.
In its July report, the Congressional Oversight Commission questioned why YRC qualified as a company critical to national security, given its business is to deliver food and other supplies to U.S. military bases. The commission has asked the Defense Department why it made the determination and said in its most recent report that answers offered by the Pentagon were “incomplete.”
A Pentagon spokesperson declined to comment.
An Apollo spokeswoman said the firm is one of many YRC lenders. Apollo was informed of the federal funding and changed its own loan terms to accommodate it, she said. A Treasury spokesperson said the department discussed the YRC loan with Apollo to determine the size and structure, and secure its agreement to change Apollo’s loan structure to permit the Treasury loan.
A spokesman for YRC, Mike Kelley, declined to comment.
Kyle Herrig, of the nonpartisan watchdog group Accountable.US, criticized the aid to Apollo-backed companies, saying it was an example of how the administration has prioritized the “wealthy and well-connected” throughout the pandemic.
“So many out-of-work families and near-bankrupt small businesses have waited months for aid — yet a company that’s posting huge profits, has access to enormous capital, and has ties to Jared Kushner happened to get a massive taxpayer bailout from the Trump Treasury,” he said.