2012 breaks streak of record-breaking years at Myrtle Beach airport

dbryant@thesunnews.comJanuary 29, 2013 

— The loss of Direct Air and cuts to seat capacity led to a 16 percent decline in the number of outgoing passengers at Myrtle Beach International Airport in 2012, but officials have said stepped up service should help improve those numbers this year.

About 740,457 passengers flew out of the Myrtle Beach airport in 2012, down about 16 percent from the record high passenger numbers in 2011, according to statistics released Tuesday. In December, about 37,125 passengers flew out of the airport, a 6 percent decline from the same month in 2011. The airport had record numbers of passengers in 2010 and 2011, with 867,106 outgoing passengers in 2010 and 878,180 outgoing passengers in 2011.

The number of outgoing passengers dropped every month in 2012 except February, when it was up 4 percent. Passenger numbers fell by double-digit percentages most of the year, with declines as high as nearly 25 percent during the peak summer season.

Airport officials blamed the ongoing declines on the loss of Myrtle Beach-based Direct Air, which abruptly stopped flying and filed for bankruptcy in March, and cuts to seat capacity. In 2011, Direct Air carried 92,502 passengers out of Myrtle Beach and connected to several key markets, especially for golfers.

Horry County Councilman Al Allen, who is running for council chairman, said the down economy and uncertainty over the presidential election “probably caused a lot of people to hesitate.”

“We had a lot of factors involved in it,” he said of the decline in passenger numbers.

He’s expecting 2013 to be better.

“Some of that lack of confidence will slowly begin to come back,” he said.

Travelers will have a few new options this year. Spirit Airlines, which carries nearly half the passengers at the airport each year, added two destinations – Philadelphia and Baltimore-Washington International Airport, both starting April 25. The carrier also plans to start several of its seasonal flights earlier in the year than usual, aiming to help fill the void left by Direct Air.

Spirit’s daily non-stop flights to Chicago, Detroit and Latrobe, Pa., will start Feb. 14; two weekly flights to Niagara Falls, N.Y., will start Feb. 15 then increase to four flights a week starting April 25. And two weekly flights to Charleston, W.Va., will start March 2 then increase to three a week starting April 25. Spirit also plans to boost its seat capacity by 25 percent, the airline said.

“[Spirit’s announcement] should be an indication of where we are going,” airport director Mike La Pier said earlier this month after the news conference announcing Spirit’s service to Philadelphia and Baltimore-Washington. “This is a heckuva nice step toward that.”

Airport spokesman Kirk Lovell declined to comment on the year-end numbers or prospects for this year.

This week, US Airways – the second busiest carrier in Myrtle Beach – will start daily, non-stop service to Reagan International in Washington, D.C. The airline has flown to that area on the weekends, but will start daily routes Friday.

Allegiant Air plans to resume its seasonal service to five cities as usual in mid-May, spokeswoman Jessica Wheeler said Tuesday. Allegiant flies to Allentown, Pa.; Fort Wayne, Ind.; Huntington, W.Va.; Knoxville, Tenn.; and Youngstown, Ohio.

“It’s great seasonal service for us,” Wheeler said. “It’s really popular in the summer.”

Allen said airport officials and golf promoters are courting more service that might be announced soon, possibly two new direct flights to the Northeast, though he said he didn’t know which cities or which carriers.

The airport is amid a $118 million expansion that includes a new 240,000-square-foot terminal, new restaurants and parking. The project is expected to be complete March 19 – about a month later than originally planned after delays in delivery of materials because of Hurricane Sandy. Officials haven’t released an opening date for the new terminal.

The new standalone rental car building is set to open at 4 a.m. Wednesday, about three months later than originally planned because of delivery delays. Lovell declined to comment on the rental car building opening, when the current car rental counters will shut down or other progress in the expansion project.

Airport officials have said that a new terminal doesn’t translate into new airlines and flights. Carriers will chose to fly to Myrtle Beach based on demand, not the size or perks of the airport, they have said.

Contact DAWN BRYANT at 626-0296 or at dbryant@thesunnews.com or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_dawnbryant.

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