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Spirit to begin nonstop Myrtle Beach to Chicago route

Spirit Airlines will begin daily nonstop service between Chicago and Myrtle Beach in March, reopening a key golf and tourism market to the Grand Strand.

Spirit will make one round trip between Myrtle Beach International Airport and Chicago O'Hare International Airport in the middle of the day from March 1 to Nov. 11, the company said.

The flight marks the first daily nonstop service to the Windy City since United Airlines ceased its daily service in 2006. The airline kept nonstop weekend service intermittently through September, according to Horry County, which owns and operates the airport.

"This is a big hit," said Brad Dean, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. "There's only a handful of tourism markets in the eastern United States that have as many likely travelers as the Chicago area."

At 15 hours, the drive to Myrtle Beach is just too far for many in the Chicago market, and many would-be visitors said they would like to see affordable, nonstop flights, Dean said.

Spirit frequently advertises flights as low as $18 each way - or $9 each way with an annual membership. The airline is selling the Chicago flights today at that price for a few days in March.

Nonstop flights are crucial factors that contribute to many travelers' decision-making - golfers and group travelers especially, tourism officials said. Studies have shown that 5 percent of Myrtle Beach visitors fly here, and half of the fliers are golfers.

"With my kids, trying to change planes and so forth, it's a bigger psychological impediment than you might otherwise think," said Chad Prosser, director of the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.

Chicago has been at the top of the air service wish lists of the chamber and Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday, a marketing group. Both organizations work to recruit air service here.

Chicago is the third largest golf market in the country, with about a million golfers - who could give a boost to Myrtle Beach's slumping courses, Golf Holiday President Bill Golden said.

"It's a huge opportunity for us," Golden said. "It's a vibrant, robust golf community that has long complained that there's not enough direct access to Myrtle Beach."

The flight will be eligible for a new incentive program created by Horry County. The program offers lower airport fees for airlines that create nonstop service between Myrtle Beach and a new airport - provided, that is, the airline does not cancel any other routes.

"This announcement by Spirit is significant," county spokeswoman Lisa Bourcier wrote in an e-mail. "This is exactly the kind of announcement we were hoping to attract when the incentive package was approved."

Spirit spokeswoman Misty Pinson said the company takes all factors into consideration when adding flights, not just incentives on fees, though they help.

"It's not really a matter of any one particular factor, but the combined total," she said in an e-mail.

One of those factors is the promise of advertising from local groups. The chamber and Golf Holiday will together kick in at least $200,000 to advertise in the Chicago area. The state tourism department made a major advertising push in Chicago last year.

Spirit won't be alone in Illinois.

Direct Air, a charter air service based in Myrtle Beach, flies to Chicago-Rockford International Airport, which is about an hour and 45 minutes from Chicago.

But Direct Air CEO Judy Tull said she thinks the companies will attract customers from different markets, with her customers coming from the southern and western parts of the state, Wisconsin and Iowa.

Spirit Airlines ran nonstop service between Myrtle Beach and Chicago in 2001 and 2002 but ended service when demand fell after Sept. 11, Pinson said.

The new route has created hope that lower fuel prices will help the airline industry battle back against the recession and bring flights back to Myrtle Beach. Earlier this year, several airlines, including Delta Air Lines and United, said they would be cutting back in the relatively small, seasonal market.

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