Travelers at Myrtle Beach International Airport should expect major changes starting Thursday -- including a new entrance -- as construction to expand the airport reaches the final few months.
Drivers will find a new way to get in and out of the airport, as well as a new parking lot where drivers picking up passengers will wait -- they won’t be allowed to wait in their vehicles by the curb at the terminal anymore.
Some of the major changes starting this week:
• At 5 a.m. Thursday, the airport’s new permanent entrance opens at the intersection of Harrelson Boulevard and Jetport Road, with the entrance across from Whispering Pines Golf Course. The intersection has a stoplight and there’s a temporary blue sign indicating it is the airport’s new entrance.
• The current entrance off Harrelson Boulevard near S.C. 15 will close at 5 a.m. Thursday, except to permitted employees and deliveries.
That means drivers on Harrelson Boulevard coming from U.S. 17 Bypass will pass the airport on their right before arriving at the entrance to it.
• Also starting at 5 a.m. Thursday, drivers will maneuver differently around the airport’s parking lots and passenger drop-off area. A road that takes drivers left and away from the current terminal will close until early next year, and traffic will be shifted onto a new road that takes them by the new terminal, which is still under construction, and a new rental car building, which is expected to open later this month.
• And one other big change for drivers waiting to pick up passengers: You won’t be allowed to sit and wait at the curb by the terminal. Drivers can still briefly stop and drop off passengers or swing by and pick them up, but they won’t be able to sit by the curb and wait for passengers to arrive, which is routine for many pickups at the Myrtle Beach airport but not at most others. Officials said they are cracking down on waiting at the curb because of safety reasons.
The airport now has set aside what they call an inspection/cell phone lot, which has 40 parking spaces and is just off the new entrance where drivers will wait for their passengers to arrive then drive to the curb to pick them up. It also opens Thursday. Or drivers can snag a spot in the short-term lot, where parking for 20 minutes or less is free.
“The habit now is people sit [at the curb] 10, 20, 30 minutes,” said Kirk Lovell, the airport’s marketing manager, who led journalists on a tour showing the changes Tuesday. “We’ve been very lenient and allowed it. Unfortunately, that is no longer going to be allowed.”
Purple, blue and green signs are going up aiming to help drivers with the changes, flag men will be at key points in the new routes and staff and volunteers will mingle letting travelers know of the changes.
“We are going to have to do a good job educating people,” Lovell said. “It’s a learning curve.”
Some travelers Tuesday hadn’t yet heard about the changes, but will encounter them on the other leg of their trips.
“Oh, good to know,” said Ellen Clement, who arrived Tuesday in Myrtle Beach and will leave Sunday. “We’ll have to get our bearings again [when we leave].”
Connie Roulier of Calabash, N.C., who was flying to London, said she had noticed where the new entrance would be, though she didn’t know it was about to open.
“We came by that way. It looked pretty good,” she said. “When we come back, I’m sure we’ll get lost getting out.”
All the changes come as construction on a new $118 million terminal wraps up in the next few months, with the airport shooting to operate fully from the new terminal starting Feb. 19.
On Tuesday, the outside of the airport was abuzz with construction work, including heavy equipment operators zooming around building a parking area, crews finishing the floor in the rental car building and workers planting trees and shrubs by the new entrance -- one of the first major permanent shifts toward operating in the new terminal, Lovell said.
The expansion 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.
“Things are moving forward,” Lovell said. “This is one of the first exciting steps to opening the terminal.”
While the airport has been growing, its traffic has been declining. Through August, about 525,621 passengers had flown out of the airport in 2012, down about 17 percent compared to the same eight months last year, according to airport statistics.
Officials have blamed the decline on the loss of Myrtle Beach-based Direct Air, which stopped flying in March and filed for bankruptcy, and a dwindling number of seats on other airlines, especially Spirit Airlines, which carries half the passengers annually at the airport.
Despite the drops, officials say the expansion is still needed because there’s not enough space in the current terminal and to accommodate future growth.
The traffic shifts this week don’t worry North Myrtle Beach resident Barbara DiGregorio, who moved here from the Northeast two years ago and was dropping off friends for a flight Tuesday.
“That won’t be so bad,” she said. “It’s still not JFK [International Airport in New York] or Newark...I don’t think this one will ever get that bad.”
Contact DAWN BRYANT at 626-0296 or at email@example.com or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_dawnbryant.