Declines in passenger numbers at Myrtle Beach International Airport continued in August with another double-digit percentage drop, but airport officials said Wednesday that the trend isn’t a reflection on demand for flying to the Grand Strand.
Cutbacks by carriers -- especially Spirit Airlines, which carries about half of the passengers at the airport each year -- have left Myrtle Beach with fewer seats to fill, airport officials said. Though the number of passengers have dropped, planes flying out of Myrtle Beach are fuller than the national average, officials said.
“We still sell seats,” said Mike La Pier, Horry County’s airports director. “This is not a market problem. This is still a destination people want to come to. This is a simple supply and demand issue.”
Traffic at the airport, which is amid a $118 million expansion, has dropped every month this year, except one, including 20 percent drops during the summer months. Airport officials say they are stepping up efforts to pitch Myrtle Beach to airlines and keep service here. Officials predict that the seat capacity might improve by next spring as the economy gets better and the aviation industry woes shake out.
“We are going to keep selling our brand, working with our partners,” said Kirk Lovell, the airport’s marketing manager who is in charge of air service development. “There is a lot of volatility in the industry right now. We are definitely feeling the pinch.”
Because Spirit carries half the passengers out of Myrtle Beach each year, any shifts in its service is easily felt on the overall numbers, La Pier said. Spirit has been shifting its planes, with about 25 of the airports it serves losing seats as a result, Lovell said.
“They are the big fish in our pond here,” La Pier said. “That has an impact on us.”
Spirit spokeswoman Misty Pinson said earlier this summer that the airline had changed some routes in Myrtle Beach, but that the carrier remained committed here.
In August, the number of passengers flying out of the Myrtle Beach airport was off about 16 percent compared to the same month last year, airport officials said. They said a detailed breakdown of August traffic wasn’t yet ready to release Wednesday.
Through July this year, about 437,090 passengers flew out of the airport, a pace that falls well short of the previous two record breaking years in 2010 and 2011 when more than 800,000 passengers flew out of the airport each year.
Officials have blamed the ongoing declines on the loss of Myrtle Beach-based Direct Air, which abruptly stopped flying in March and filed for bankruptcy, and cutbacks on carriers.
But some passengers say ticket prices also are hurting the Myrtle Beach airport, with many of them flying out of Charleston or Wilmington, N.C., instead of Myrtle Beach because it’s cheaper.
“The problem is the cost,” said Joi Stephenson of Surfside Beach, who regularly drives two hours to Charleston to fly to Ohio. Her visiting relatives also fly to Charleston then drive north to Surfside Beach because Charleston not only is cheaper but has direct flights that Myrtle Beach doesn’t have, she said.
“It’s not only inconvenient [to fly out of Myrtle Beach], it’s not cost worthy,” Stephenson said.
Despite the passenger declines, airport and Horry County officials say the $118 million expansion that is underway adding more gates, restaurants and parking is still needed to meet future growth and give the cramped airport more room. The first flights are expected to fly out of the new terminal in February.
Stephenson said she hoped the expanded airport would bring in more carriers and discounted ticket prices.
“I had high hopes,” she said.
On Wednesday, passengers out of Charleston got some good news when low-cost carrier JetBlue announced it would start flying three flights daily from Charleston -- two to JFK International in New York and one to Logan International in Boston. The flights start in February. Officials said the additional flights will mean another 100,000 seats a year for Charleston, according to The Associated Press.
Contact DAWN BRYANT at 626-0296 or at email@example.com or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_dawnbryant.