MYRTLE BEACH — Traffic at Myrtle Beach International Airport had its largest drop so far this year in July, and the downward trend isn’t expected to improve any time soon, officials said Thursday.
About 92,345 passengers flew out of the airport in July, a nearly 25 percent drop from the same month last year and the first time since 2009 that fewer than 100,000 passengers flew out of the airport during July, one of the busiest tourist months along the Grand Strand, according to airport statistics released Thursday. In July 2011, 122,682 passengers flew out of the airport, which is amid an expansion.
July’s decrease is the sixth drop in the past seven months, with 437,090 passengers flying out of the airport during the first seven months this year - a 17 percent decline from the same period in 2011.
“It’s been a rough year,” Horry County Councilman Marion Foxworth said. “We’ve lost one airline completely, had cutbacks on three others and one that is really shaky right now....I was really surprised the downturn was as big as it was.”
Officials blame the ongoing declines on the loss of Myrtle Beach-based Direct Air, which abruptly stopped flying and filed for bankruptcy in March, and cutbacks by Spirit Airlines, which carries half the passengers in Myrtle Beach each year. In July 2011, Direct Air carried 16,958 passengers out of the Myrtle Beach airport.
“It’s unfortunate but it’s all about seat capacity,” Kirk Lovell, the airport’s marketing director, said of the overall decline in passenger numbers. “The planes that are coming and going are full.”
Spirit carried 13,036 fewer passengers last month than in July 2011 because of several changes the airline has made to its service to Myrtle Beach, including not flying nonstop to Atlanta as it did last year. Spirit spokeswoman Misty Pinson said earlier this summer that the airline stays committed to Myrtle Beach.
Vision Airlines, which has had a shaky start in Myrtle Beach since beginning service here in late May, carried 3,925 passengers out of Myrtle Beach in July, according to airport statistics. Airport officials have said the passenger numbers haven’t been as strong as expected because the carrier had less than a month to promote the flights, announcing in early May that it would begin flying here later that month. The carrier also has turned off some passengers after many of them waited nearly a day for their flights to take off. Officials at Vision Airlines could not be reached Thursday.
Air service is a crucial component in bringing more visitors to the Grand Strand and fueling the beach’s tourism-based economy, officials say. The losses this year set back those efforts and have prompted airport officials and tourism promoters to put together a plan to be more aggressive in regaining the lost capacity and keeping it.
“It’s certainly a concern,” said Bill Golden, president of marketing group Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday, which works with the airport and the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce to lure and keep air service. “We rely on those flights to continue to feed and grow the golf market.”
Airport officials say they plan to be more aggressive in talking with airlines to keep service and attract flights to new destinations. Officials are trying to target an airline that could help make up for the loss of Direct Air and are courting carriers that already fly to Myrtle Beach to expand service and others that don’t to bring new service, officials said.
“We are putting together an aggressive marketing plan,” Lovell said. “It’s just being more aggressive and getting out there more often.”
Passengers shouldn’t expect to see more seats returning until next spring, at the earliest, because most airlines already have set their fall lineups. Now is a crucial time to talk with airlines because they are setting their spring schedules, Golden said.
The Myrtle Beach airport is coming off two consecutive record years of passengers and is amid a $118 million expansion, which airport and Horry County leaders have said is still needed for growth despite the recent passenger declines. The expansion, which is 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.
The down economy also has played a role in the airport’s struggles, Foxworth said, with some visitors opting to drive here instead of flying to save a few bucks.
“I’m in hopes that as the economy continues to improve, the flights in and out of here will pick up,” he said. “It’s not going to be like flipping a switch.”
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