MYRTLE BEACH — Canadian golfers and vacationers will have another option for getting to the Grand Strand when WestJet Airlines starts flying to Myrtle Beach this week.
The flights, which start Thursday, will run twice a week between Myrtle Beach International Airport and Toronto Pearson International Airport.
The additional flights should help the local golf and tourism industries, leaders have said, by trimming what usually is a 16-hour-plus drive into a roughly two-hour flight.
Canada is the top international market for Grand Strand tourism, and the area has long celebrated that relationship with the annual Canadian-American Days festival in March.
“It’s really become a very popular leisure destination of choice,” WestJet spokeswoman Brie Ogle said.
Flying here from Canada has gotten easier through the years. Porter Airlines flies to Toronto City Centre in Canada during the fall, winter and spring, and several other airlines fly to Niagara Falls, N.Y., which is close to the Canadian border.
“There is a huge contingency of Canadians coming down here all the time,” said Kirk Lovell, spokesman for Myrtle Beach International Airport. “Now there is another option.”
Bookings on the WestJet flights have been strong since the carrier announced in February that it would start flying to Myrtle Beach, officials said. The first flight, which is expected to arrive about 11:30 a.m. Thursday, is full, Ogle said.
The flights, on Thursdays and Sundays, will leave Toronto at 9:30 a.m. and arrive at Myrtle Beach International Airport at 11:35 a.m., then leave Myrtle Beach at 12:20 p.m. and arrive in Toronto at 2:14 p.m.
The seasonal flights on a 136-seat Boeing 737 are expected to run until late October. In addition to Myrtle Beach, WestJet started service to Dallas-Fort Worth this week.
Horry County is ensuring that WestJet is successful here by putting $1 million in escrow to guarantee that WestJet receives the minimum 15 percent operating margin for flight service during the seasonal period. Once the season ends, the airline will calculate its profit margin consistent with a reporting process WestJet has historically used in determining route profitability.
If the profit margin meets or exceeds 15 percent, Horry County won’t owe WestJet any money. If it’s less than 15 percent, the county will pay the difference in an amount not exceeding the $1 million. Officials have said that they don’t expect to have to tap that fund.
Other airports use the same type of incentive to lure new service, Lovell said.
“It’s a competitive marketplace,” he said.
Providing a revenue guarantee is common as airports try to lure new airlines, said aviation consultant Mike Boyd, who has worked with the Myrtle Beach airport, among others.
“They are the norm,” he said. “It’s what you have to do. Airlines say, `we don’t want to take any risks flying into here.’”
Destinations have a variety of ways to lure airlines, but the deciding factor whether to start serving a city is whether demand is there to support the flights, Ogle said.
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