Airline merger could eventually mean more access, destinations for Myrtle Beach International Airport

dbryant@thesunnews.comDecember 2, 2013 

Airline Merger

FILE - In this Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013, file photo, an American Airlines plane and a US Airways plane are parked at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington. A Federal bankruptcy judge is approving the settlement in the U.S. government's antitrust lawsuit against American Airlines and US Airways, clearing the airlines to complete their merger early December 2013. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

SUSAN WALSH — AP

Myrtle Beach leaders aren’t sure yet how the mega-merger of US Airways and American Airlines will affect Myrtle Beach International Airport, but they said they are working to make sure MYR keeps its existing flights and possibly adds new ones down the road.

American said it plans to close the deal Dec. 9. On Wednesday, a bankruptcy judge approved a settlement between the airlines and the U.S. Justice Department, removing the last obstacle in the merger’s path. The deal will create the world’s largest airline.

“I’m generally encouraged with the prospects of this merger and believe that our airport, and community, could reap long-term benefits from it,” said Brad Dean, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. “The combination of two successful legacy carriers could open up new markets and new routes eventually, but for now it simply provides broader access to those traveling to, and from, our community.”

Airport officials said they won’t know specifics until the deal closes and the airline starts announcing changes to its overall network.

“From an airport perspective we have to wait and see how the merged carriers will modify their schedules across their broad network,” said Kirk Lovell, spokesman for Myrtle Beach International Airport, where US Airways is the second most popular carrier. “Horry County Department of Airports is in regular communication with its airline partners about the need to maintain existing air service levels and the demand to add new flights and introduce new nonstop destinations from Myrtle Beach International Airport.”

American and US Airways are likely to keep flying as separate brands for 18 months or longer, but they’ll soon begin selling seats on each other’s planes, offering reciprocal frequent-flier benefits, and setting prices and schedules together, The Associated Press reported.

The Justice Department had sued to block the deal in August, saying that it would hurt competition and lead to higher prices. But regulators settled their case in exchange for the airlines’ promise to surrender some coveted landing rights at Reagan National near Washington and LaGuardia in New York and a few gates at five other airports.

The new American Airlines will be slightly larger in passenger traffic than United Airlines, and four airlines – American, United, Delta and Southwest – will control more than 80 percent of the U.S. market. Since 2005, mergers will have cut the industry from nine big airlines to just those four.

“Now that this [American-US Airways merger] is moving forward, we intend to aggressively seek any and all opportunities to expand our promotional support and build interest in expanded service,” Dean said.

Both airlines are familiar with Myrtle Beach. US Airways, with a hub in Charlotte, has long served Myrtle Beach International Airport and is its second busiest carrier, behind Spirit Airlines. US Airways flies to Myrtle Beach year-round, with nonstop service to Washington through Reagan National Airport, Philadelphia and Charlotte. About 187,925 passengers flew into MYR on US Airways last year, according to airport statistics.

American’s experience with MYR was much more short-lived. American Eagle, a regional affiliate to American Airlines, used to fly here in the early 1990s when the airline had a hub at Raleigh-Durham but stopped that service in 1994 when the RDU hub closed. It returned in 2010, from April through October that year, with service to Dallas but didn’t return after that one season.

The airline said there weren’t enough passengers on the Dallas flights, but local officials blamed the carrier’s small, 50-seat planes, saying only 35 of the 50 seats on each flight could be sold because of the golf bags on the flights, which hurt the carrier’s return on its investment from the start.

Dean would like to see more service to the western United States return to MYR as a result of the merger – a move he says could boost Grand Strand tourism by opening up the beach to a new crop of potential visitors.

“Maintaining current capacity and protecting existing routes is our top priority, but we’re also hopeful that we could see expanded access to key eastern markets,” Dean said. “Eventually, I anticipate this merger may prove to be a key element in opening up the western U.S. to our destination (beyond what we enjoy today), making the Myrtle Beach area more of a national destination.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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

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