MYRTLE BEACH — Declines in passenger numbers that have plagued Myrtle Beach International Airport this year continued in September with another double-digit drop, and officials say it won’t get any better until next year.
About 67,299 passengers flew out of the airport last month, a 10.5 percent drop from September 2011, according to airport statistics released Wednesday.
Officials blame the drop on a shakeout nationally in the airline industry that has left some airports across the country, including Myrtle Beach, with fewer seats to fill with cuts in the frequency of flights or use of smaller planes. Myrtle Beach also lost Direct Air, which abruptly stopped flying in March and filed for bankruptcy.
Some passengers have also said that the price of flights might be affecting passenger numbers, with some travelers skipping Myrtle Beach and driving to airports in Charleston, Wilmington, N.C., or Charlotte because they say it’s cheaper.
Airport officials say the planes leaving Myrtle Beach are still full or nearly full, with the “load factor” -- the passengers on the plane compared to its capacity -- increasing in September to 81 percent compared with 76 percent during the same month a year ago. The number of available seats dropped by 19 percent in September compared to September 2011, according to the airport.
Spirit Airlines, Delta and U.S. Airways each carried about the same number of outgoing passengers in September as they did during September 2011, according to airport statistics. Allegiant Air carried substantially more than it did a year ago, flying 2,079 passengers out of Myrtle Beach last month, compared to 847 in September 2011.
“The fact the planes are fuller coming in and out of Myrtle Beach International Airport shows demand for Myrtle Beach is strong,” Mike La Pier, Horry County’s airports director, said in a news release. “We are optimistic that passenger volume will level out and then begin increasing next year.”
Through September this year, 592,920 passengers have flown out of the airport -- a 16 percent drop compared with the same nine months last year. The airport had record numbers of passengers in 2010 and 2011 and is amid a $118 million expansion to build a new terminal, rental car building and parking areas.
Passenger traffic has dropped every month this year except February, with 20-plus percent declines during the busy summer tourist months.
Airport officials and tourism promoters have said they stepped up their strategy to keep and lure additional service because of the declines. They say they’ve met with airlines that already serve the airport and others that they would like to start flying to Myrtle Beach, but have declined to say which airlines. Officials are pitching Myrtle Beach as an in-demand tourism market, said Kirk Lovell, the airport’s marketing director.
“We are definitely having meetings,” he said. “We have a good story to tell. It’s a strong market.”
Whether the strategy works likely won’t be known for a few months, Lovell said. Airlines typically announce their spring schedules in January.
Meanwhile, construction to expand the airport is entering its final few months. The new, permanent main entrance opened last week and the new rental car building is on track to open early to mid-November. The new terminal is expected to open in February.
But a new terminal with more gates and space than the existing terminal won’t necessarily translate into more airlines serving Myrtle Beach, Lovell said. Airlines want airports that are efficient, but they are more concerned with the demand being there to warrant the flights.
“Airports don’t attract carriers,” Lovell said. “It’s the market. It’s not the airport.”
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