WestJet to return to Myrtle Beach for second year

01/06/2014 5:22 PM

01/06/2014 5:27 PM

Canadian airline company WestJet, which Horry County paid more than $551,000 last year for a weaker than expected inaugural year, announced Monday it will resume flights in and out of the Myrtle Beach International Airport this March.

“We’re very pleased to return with non-stop service to one of Canada’s favourite(sic) vacation and snowbird destinations,” said Chris Avery, WestJet Vice-President, Network Planning, Alliances and Corporate Development in a press statement. “After a very successful first season, our guests told us they wanted to escape the snow, stroll the boardwalk and shop the outlet malls even earlier this year. And with more than 100 golf courses, Myrtle Beach is the perfect place to get an early start to the season.”

In the WestJet deal, inked in early 2013, the county entered into a revenue guarantee agreement that stated if WestJet did not make at least a 15 percent profit in its operating margin, the county would reimburse the airline up to $1 million. It was the first time Horry County had provided a revenue guarantee to an airline, which was a push to get more tourists from Canada to fly to the beach during summer months and not just their typical trek during the area’s off season.

The mark was off by $551,075. WestJet carried 4,636 passengers into Myrtle Beach during its six months of service this year, which ended in October, according to airport statistics.

Since WestJet was not familiar with the area, it began to create its own golf and accommodations packages, which proved to be too expensive for flyers, council has said. So, the airline did what it had to do to fill seats, which was reduce fares.

Lower rates meant lower profit. Lower profit meant the county was more vulnerable to having to pay WestJet for the lackluster season, which ended Oct. 23, under the agreement it signed with the county before the airline would agree to fly here.

The chamber paid WestJet the money upfront and will withhold accommodations tax dollars it usually would give the county until the debt is caught up. Accommodations tax dollars come from taxes tourists pay for stays at area hotels. The Myrtle Beach chamber distributes the money to area municipalities and the county to use on such things as promotion and advertising.

“Horry County Department of Airports is pleased to welcome WestJet back for its second season at Myrtle Beach International Airport,” said Pat Apone, interim director of airports for the county in a press release. “The return of WestJet is a testament to the strength of the Myrtle Beach, South Carolina brand.”

The nonstop service begins March 6 and will be offered twice weekly, Thursday and Sunday, through Oct. 23.

Horry County leaders, including Brad Dean, president and CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, have said they will not enter into a revenue agreement like the one they entered with WestJet.

“WestJet’s promotion of our destination, as well as the substantial economic impact, has had a very positive impact on the entire Myrtle Beach area,” Dean said in a press release. “We’re very excited to begin the new year by welcoming WestJet back to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and look forward to amazing results in 2014.”

The revenue agreement has been an issue that sometimes comes up in Horry County Council meetings, including a workshop the county had Monday a completely unrelated matter.

Councilman Harold Worley, who is chairman of the county’s administration committee that initially approved the revenue guarantee, took time to apologize to residents watching the workshop on television.

“I feel responsible for this. I want to apologize to the people back home,” Worley said of the agreement. “I let you down in the WestJet fiasco. As chairman of the admin[inistration committee], I didn’t do my job. But I promise you this, it’s not going to happen again.”

Chairman Mark Lazarus learned of WestJet’s announcement at the workshop.

“That’s excellent news that WestJet will be coming back,” Lazarus said. “We’re going to have to look at it as a marketing fee. We spent a lot to market the destination. Fortunately they were receptive to it and hopefully we’ll be able to make up some of that money.”

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