More people flew into and out of Myrtle Beach International Airport in July than ever before, breaking the 100,000 passenger mark, according to airport numbers released Monday.
More than 111,000 passengers boarded outbound planes and more than 117,000 passengers arrived in Myrtle Beach in July, breaking records set in July 2005 and beating peak months in 2007 before the economic downturn began.
Additional markets and direct routes to places like Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Chicago added in recent months have bolstered passenger demand. Direct marketing in those new destinations also helped bring more people to the area to spend tourism dollars, according to airport and tourism officials.
"Since May, every month has been breaking some kind of record or another," said Lauren Morris, spokeswoman for the Horry County department of airports. "They're just very positive numbers. You cannot have flown in or out over the last few months and not noticed an increase in people at the gates or at the ticket counters. We're ready for the expansion. We need the space for the ticket counters. We need the extra space for baggage, for security. We're ready for the additional space."
Spirit Airlines, Delta and Myrtle Beach Direct all experienced significant gains in passengers last month, and almost every other airline experienced moderate gains in July. Spirit Airlines saw the largest jump, from about 28,000 passengers in 2009 to about 43,000 this year.
Spirit representatives did not return phone calls forcomment Monday, but Morris attributed some of their gains to the additional markets, such as Atlanta, added in the spring.
In May, Spirit Airlines added 13,000 additional seats, started daily flights to Atlanta and doubled the number of daily flights to Atlantic City and LaGuardia. Delta Airlines also increased its capacity on the Atlanta route by flying larger planes, Morris said. Allegiant also began four new direct routes in April: Dallas-Fort Worth; Fort Wayne, Ind.; Grand Rapids, Mich., and Knoxville, Tenn.
Out-of-area marketing efforts by the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce and Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday also played a role in the increases, Morris said. Increasing flight markets and passengers has long been a goal of both organizations, with an aim to surpass 1 million passengers boarding or exiting planes annually over the next few years.
"For the first time ever, we've been able to go into every direct service market and advertise with a package of brand-related television advertising, generating demand for the diverse vacation experiences we can offer in Myrtle Beach," said Scott Schult, vice president of marketing at the chamber.
"If you look at the visitation to our website, it's up in every single one of those markets. We've also been adding mentions or visuals of the specific airlines that service the markets specific to each one," he said. "So, maybe there will be 40 seconds of Myrtle Beach and 10 or 15 seconds of the airline, tying the connective tissue between the place and how the airline they might use to get here. We're trying to make it as easy as possible for potential visitors."
Although summer is not the peak season for golf outings, Golf Holiday representatives said they've also seen an increase in packages and bookings compared to this time last year. The organization anticipated the growth in passengers and is looking forward to a hopeful increase for prime golf season in September and October, said Bill Golden, marketing director of Golf Holiday.
"We are anticipating an increase in what we're seeing out of August and September, although it's hard to predict because people have been booking their packages later," he said. "We are seeing some encouraging signs ... and the air service is a critical component of that."
The direct service attracted many of the customers flying out of Myrtle Beach International Monday afternoon. Amber Barney balanced her son, 4-month-old Tanner, on her hip and pushed his stroller through the check-in line at Myrtle Beach International Airport Monday afternoon. The new mom drove from Wilmington, N.C., to catch a nonstop flight to Rochester, NY.
"Flying out of Myrtle Beach, you don't have to stop in Charlotte and that was the biggest thing for me," she said. "I didn't want to have to run around the Charlotte airport with him trying to catch a connecting flight. It's the first time he's flown and I am nervous, but he's sleepy and hungry right now so that's a good sign."
Other passengers were waiting Monday to return home after vacationing in Myrtle Beach, many for the first time and many said they will be making a return trip in the future.
"It's my first time coming here, but I'll definitely be back," said Brooke Wiehe, who flew in on a direct flight from Fort Wayne with some friends and family. "We relaxed at the hotel, went to the beach. We went shopping and got some great stuff this weekend. It was a good trip."
Local governments and tourism agencies are waiting to see if the increase in passengers will also lead to an increase in occupancy numbers and accommodations tax collections for the months of June and July. The most recent accommodations tax numbers for May were up over last year, Schult said, and the expectation is that the rest of the summer could also see a welcomed increase.
Contact CLAUDIA LAUER at 626-0301.