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MB gets nonstop flight to Chicago amid mixed passenger predictions

Myrtle Beach will kick off the 2009 tourist season with at least one bit of good news for air travelers and the golf industry: a long-awaited nonstop flight to Chicago will debut in March.

Spirit Airlines will offer the flight, which will come around the same time as several flights offered by Direct Air begin to a slew of smaller markets.

Officials are mixed on whether they think there will be more or fewer passengers this year at Myrtle Beach International Airport than in 2008, which was off 7.23 percent from the previous year. It's important to note, though, that 2007 was the busiest year on record for the airport, with more than 1.68 million seats booked in and out.

Horry County, which owns and operates the airport, expects traffic to be the same and perhaps slightly up.

In January - one of the slowest months for the Grand Strand - the number of passengers coming in and flying out of the airport was off by about 20 percent compared with the same month in 2008, according to Horry County.

Air fares should be aggressive as airlines try to take advantage of low fuel prices, said Brad Dean, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.

Nonstop flights are important to the golf industry, because golfers generally want direct flights to maximize the amount of time they spend on the links. Studies have shown golfers make up half of the airport's passengers.

Don Schunk, a research economist with Coastal Carolina University, said he thinks airport traffic will continue to decrease. But he said it's important to take a long-term view when thinking about the airport expansion.

The county wants to build a $130 million addition, adding five gates, to handle a projected increase in traffic. Construction is expected to start in 2010, with the bigger airport ready by 2012.

Myrtle Beach charter air company Direct Air will fly to Allentown, Pa.; Rockford, Ill.; Kalamazoo, Mich.; Worcester, Mass.; and Toledo, Ohio, in addition to cities it already serves: Niagara Falls, N.Y.; Plattsburgh, N.Y.; Newark, N.J.; and Pittsburgh.