MYRTLE BEACH — June was another rough month for Myrtle Beach International Airport, with passenger numbers again down by double digit percentages – and that trend isn’t likely to change anytime soon.
Cuts in capacity, or the number of seats, combined with the loss of Direct Air caused the number of outgoing passengers to drop by 21 percent in June compared to the same month last year, according to airport statistics released Wednesday.
Traffic has dropped five of the past six months, with the number of passengers flying out of the airport for the first half of the year down 15 percent from the same period in 2011.
Officials blame the ongoing passenger declines at the airport – which has had two consecutive record-setting years in passenger numbers and is amid an expansion – on changes made by airlines that have left Myrtle Beach with fewer seats.
Some airlines have dropped routes, aren’t flying as frequently to some destinations or are using smaller planes. There’s also the loss from Myrtle Beach-based Direct Air, which abruptly stopped flying and filed for bankruptcy in March.
“That’s a loss of capacity,” airports director Mike La Pier said of the monthly decline. “You can’t fill seats you don’t have.”
And it’s not expected to get any better any time soon.
La Pier predicts that by the close of 2012, passenger numbers will be off about 15 percent from last year’s record-setting numbers – marking the first annual decline in the number of passengers since 2009. For the first six months of 2012, 344,745 passengers flew out of Myrtle Beach, down from 404,923 during the same period last year, according to airport statistics.
In June, 80,364 passengers flew out of the airport, down from 102,082 in June 2011, according to airport statistics.
The biggest hit last month wasn’t from the loss of Direct Air, which had carried 9,712 passengers out of Myrtle Beach during June 2011. Spirit Airlines, the largest airline in Myrtle Beach that carries half of the airport’s passengers, carried 13,545 fewer outgoing passengers in June compared with June 2011 because of changes to its service in Myrtle Beach this year.
It isn’t flying nonstop to Atlanta as it did last year and hasn’t flown to Niagara Falls, N.Y., in May or June because of runway construction that has effectively closed the airport there, Spirit spokeswoman Misty Pinson has said. Spirit also cut back its Washington, D.C., flights to Reagan National to Saturdays instead of daily flights it had last year because Spirit could not obtain slots, she said. It also has cut the number of flights to LaGuardia in New York, which is Myrtle Beach’s No. 1 market, La Pier has said.
“We are certainly committed to Myrtle Beach, which is an important market for Spirit and our customers,” Pinson said last month. Pinson could not be reached Wednesday.
Allegiant Air also carried fewer outgoing passengers last month, about 1,955 less than in June 2011, according to airport statistics.
Vision Airlines, which started serving Myrtle Beach at the end of May, carried 3,728 passengers out of the airport in June. The carrier, which announced in early May that it would start flying here at the end of that month, had a rough start here, already cutting two of the eight destinations it was flying to saying the demand wasn’t there.
“It’s a little short of our projections but it’s still been a solid program so far,” Bill Maloney, a spokesman for Vision Airlines, said of the carrier’s June passenger numbers.
Despite the decline in passengers at the airport, the $118 million expansion still is needed because the existing terminal is handling more than it was designed for, La Pier said. The expansion, on track to open in February, will add a 240,000-square-foot terminal and new parking and rental car facilities. The number of gates will grow from seven to 13, with the ability to grow to 18 gates.
“You look at what’s going to be needed in the future,” Horry County Council Chairman Tom Rice said.
It’s unlikely to see the airport regain the lost capacity this year because airlines already have set their flight lineups for the peak season, La Pier said.
“There’s not a short-term fix for our capacity problem,” La Pier said. “Our focus will strongly be on making sure that next year we have the capacity here that the market needs.”
The focus will be on tweaking the strategy – being more aggressive in communicating with airlines during their planning and keeping Myrtle Beach on the radar – to lure back some of the lost flights and bigger planes for next summer, La Pier said.
Helping do that will be a main goal of Kirk Lovell, a former consultant focusing on airports who started working at the Myrtle Beach airport Tuesday, charged in part with air service development, La Pier said.
“What it does is really highlight the importance of being out there early and talking to the airlines,” La Pier said.
But any improvement likely will just be gaining the capacity the beach has lost instead of returning to more substantial growth.
“I don’t see us bringing it back to positive numbers,” La Pier said.
Contact DAWN BRYANT at 626-0296 or at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_dawnbryant.