WestJet off to slow start with Myrtle Beach flights

dbryant@thesunnews.comAugust 3, 2013 

Canadian-based WestJet is off to a slower-than-expected start with its flights to Myrtle Beach.

The airline, which started flying to Myrtle Beach from Toronto, Canada in May, brought 875 passengers to Myrtle Beach in May and 571 passengers in June, according to statistics from Myrtle Beach International Airport. Passenger numbers for July aren’t yet available.

But there are still several more months on WestJet’s first season here for the flights to prove themselves.

“The reception has not been as strong as we would have liked but, as always, we evaluate the next potential season based on the results of our initial service once the initial schedule has ceased,” said Brie Thorsteinson Ogle, a WestJet spokeswoman.

The seasonal flights are scheduled to run until Oct. 23 and resume May 1. WestJet is the only carrier to fly to Canada during the summer, though others fly into nearby Niagara Falls, N.Y. Porter Airlines flies to Toronto City Centre in Canada during the fall, winter and spring.

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.

Tourism and golf promoters lauded the new WestJet flights, saying they could lure visitors by making it easier and more convenient to get here, trimming what usually is a 16-hour-plus drive into a roughly two-hour flight.

“[WestJet] appears to be successful so far,” Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus said in an email. “June was a softer month than we would like but it was expected. June is normally a slow month for Canadian travel.”

If WestJet doesn’t meet its revenue goals, Horry County is on the hook to make up the difference.

Horry County has put $1 million in escrow to make up any difference if WestJet doesn’t hit its 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.

“It’s too early to tell whether we will need to provide any financial assistance,” Lazarus said in an email. “The final ‘true up’ is cumulative over the life of the entire agreement.”

Providing a revenue guarantee is common as airports try to lure new airlines, aviation consultant Mike Boyd has said, adding that airlines don’t want to take the risk flying into an airport that doesn’t guarantee revenue when other airports will.

Lazarus said it’s too early to know whether WestJet will be back next summer, but “if we perform as well as other markets with similar start-up agreements, WestJet indicated from the beginning they intend and hope to be able to continue service.”

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

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