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United Airlines cuts MB routes

Myrtle Beach will be left without direct flights to Washington, D.C., and Chicago this winter, after United Airlines announced Wednesday it will cut its offseason routes to this tourist city.

The cut comes as United adjusts to high fuel prices, company spokesman Jeff Kovick said. United will stop flying to Myrtle Beach Nov. 2 and plans to resume flights on March 29, 2009.

United Airlines carries, on average, just under 30 percent of all passengers at Myrtle Beach International Airport, which is owned and operated by Horry County.

Grand Strand tourism leaders have been braced for flight reductions as oil prices spiral upward.

"I can't say we're surprised by the situation," said Brad Dean, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, which lobbies for air service in the Myrtle Beach area. "I'm encouraged that they're publicly stating that they're coming back."

Industry leaders in the Myrtle Beach area have been strategizing ways to keep air service - or replace canceled routes - with The Boyd Group, an aviation industry consulting firm. Last month, the group warned city leaders that airlines using regional jets - specifically, United - might reshuffle their fleets.

"The rules of the game have changed; it used to be that we just had to focus on filling the airplane," Dean said. "But in many instances now, even a full plane doesn't break even."

In the past, the chamber would have considered a 70 percent full flight a success.

However, during November 2007 to March 2008 - the period last year that corresponds to what it is cutting this year - United filled 81 percent of the seats available, according to Horry County figures.

This is the latest Myrtle Beach route to fall victim to reverberations throughout the industry as airlines try to do business amid $144-a-barrel oil.

Atlanta-based charter company Southern Skyways scaled back plans to fly to Myrtle Beach earlier this year, canceling routes before they even started flying.

Over the past few months, United announced it would ground 100 planes, mostly 737s. Now, the company is re-routing some regional jets - such as those that fly to Myrtle Beach - to take the place of the bigger planes.

"We are countering record-high fuel prices and a softening U.S. economy by taking aggressive action to reduce our capacity, retire aircraft and eliminate the least profitable markets from our fall schedule so that we are able to compete effectively in this challenging environment," Kovick said in an e-mailed statement.

Airport officials have not yet been notified of the change, said Lisa Bourcier, spokeswoman for Horry County.

The cutbacks will likely take a toll on Lucero Noyola and her family's travels. They usually fly United Airlines to Myrtle Beach at least twice a year to visit family in North Carolina.

"This airport is the closest one to our family," said Noyola, after she checked in at Myrtle Beach International Airport. They don't like the idea of having fewer offseason flight options, she said.

Bill Golden, president of the marketing group Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday, said he is confident that the strength of the Myrtle Beach market will keep airlines coming during the spring, summer and fall.

"Certainly the seasonality of Myrtle Beach is going to ... put us in a position where we're going to lose service seasonally," he said. "This changes so much every day it's difficult to predict what's going to happen next week, let alone six months from now."

Staff reporter Jessica Foster contributed to this report.