Michael Malone thought he had done something wrong when Myrtle Beach International Airport staff asked to speak with him after his flight landed Thursday afternoon.
Instead, the New York resident was given a bag of prizes for being the 839,451st passenger to fly into the airport in 2010, breaking the previous record for most inbound passengers set in 2007.
"I didn't know why I was being singled out," Malone said. "It's great. A pleasant surprise. A bonus for New Year's weekend."
Malone received two tickets on Spirit Airlines in addition to taffy, postcards and a miniature football.
It's an impressive accomplishment, considering national unemployment is roughly 10 percent and consumer confidence is at all time lows, said Michael Boyd, an aviation consultant who has worked with Myrtle Beach in the past to bring new air service. No other airport had growth rates comparable to Myrtle Beach in 2010, Boyd said.
Although the airport can't sustain its pace forever, it could continue to see 5 to 10 percent growth in the next couple of years, said Boyd, president of Colorado-based Boyd Group International.
The airport is aiming for 1 million passengers in 2011, airport director Michael La Pier said at the event welcoming Malone and others on a flight from LaGuardia.
"I think we've got a good shot at it," La Pier said.
Spirit Airlines' plan to introduce flights to five new destinations - Washington, D.C.; Plattsburgh, N.Y.; Niagara Falls, N.Y.; Latrobe, Pa.; and Charleston, W.Va. - next year will go a long way toward accomplishing the goal, he said. Porter Airlines will also expand on the number of seasonal flights it began offering to Toronto in 2010, he said.
La Pier said he expects more airlines to announce new routes soon but did not say which airlines or destinations.
Breaking the record in 2010 shows that the efforts of the city, Horry County, Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce and Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday to bring new tourists are paying off, La Pier said.
Advertising for the Myrtle Beach area has jumped since 2009 when the City Council imposed a 1 cent sales tax, with the proceeds going to the chamber's promotions budget. Since then, the chamber has spent about $17 million promoting the Grand Strand out-of-state, according to chamber leaders.
"In a period when the economy is not doing so well and a number of markets throughout the country are seeing downturns in their traffic, we're actually setting a record," La Pier said.
The airports expansion will add six new gates and allow the airport to meet the rising demand, he said. The expanded airport will only further Myrtle Beach's reputation as "the Vatican of golf," Boyd said.
"What's the key is to have a facility that can handle 'large' airplanes so they can carry golf bags," he said.
Contact JAKE SPRING at 626-0310.