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Airline scores direct hit

If it were not for Direct Air, the Myrtle Beach-based company that operates public charter flights to the Grand Strand, Fred Traynor's 8-year-old daughter might not know how to swim.

Traynor and his family took an extra vacation to Myrtle Beach after buying tickets from his hometown of Pittsburgh on a Direct Air flight, and on the trip, his daughter's fear of water evaporated after they bought a scuba mask.

"If I had to drive, I probably wouldn't have been in Myrtle Beach, which means I wouldn't have been in a pool," said Traynor, 39. "Or I wouldn't be in a Wings buying stuff because I needed some beach toys."

Direct Air is celebrating its third season by beginning seasonal nonstop flights to Myrtle Beach from seven new cities. And if all goes well, executives said, the company will not stop there.

Direct Air is looking to expand to even more - perhaps to Grand Rapids and Lansing, Mich.; Gary, Ind.; Texas; and even to the West Coast. The company, which contracts with Virgin America and others to operate its flights, hopes to purchase its own airplanes.

"We get very excited about every new city that we open," said Kay Ellison, one of the five managing partners of the company. "It's real easy to be at a company and to work at a company and spend other people's money, but when we're here, we're spending our own money making this work."

Chief Executive Judy Tull and some of the other partners came to Myrtle Beach to work for the now-defunct Hooters Air, which ceased operations in early 2006. Direct Air operated its first schedule in 2007 after being founded in late 2006.

"So many times you work for somebody else and you're doing it their way all the time," said Tull, who operated public charters for other companies before working for Direct Air. "And we said, 'We're going to do it our way.'"

Its first year, Direct Air flew from Myrtle Beach to Niagara Falls, N.Y.; Newark, N.J.; and Pittsburgh. Early in 2008, it added Plattsburgh, N.Y., and Columbus, Ohio, and it later added Punta Gorda, Fla. This year it added Sanford, Fla., near Orlando; Kalamazoo, Mich.; Worcester, Mass., near Boston; Rockford and Springfield, Ill.; Toledo, Ohio; and Allentown, Pa.

Round-trip tickets usually start at $220. On average, Direct Air's planes are about 75 percent full, enough to turn a profit.

"Direct Air is an unheralded success story," said Brad Dean, the president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. "Not simply because they've been able to keep this small airline in operation and somewhat profitable, but they're also opening up new markets to the destination."

At Niagara Falls International Airport, near Buffalo, Direct Air was the first company to provide regularly scheduled passenger service, said C. Douglas Hartmayer, a spokesman for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.

Direct Air focused on the Niagara Falls airport because it is close to Toronto, and the flights from Plattsburgh cater to Canadians from Montreal. Tull boasted that the company is the only airline to provide nonstop service to Myrtle Beach that serves Canadian markets.

With larger airlines cutting service to smaller cities due to the down economy, there is a demand for the low-cost air service that Direct Air is providing, especially from those places to vacation destinations, said Tom Zoeller, the president of the National Air Carrier Association.

"What's different about this economic downturn is you don't see a lot of people coming in and filling the void that's left when some of the other airlines go bankrupt, or you see the mergers and you begin to see air service in some other communities disappear," he said.

The reliability of public charter companies can sometimes be poor, Zoeller said, noting that there is usually not another flight for passengers if there is a mechanical problem or delay. But the public charter model also allows startups to grow faster because they are not responsible for operating the flights or buying planes.

"It helps you continue to offer the lower fares because you don't necessarily have that overhead," he said. "You're just paying a basic fee to the aircraft operator."

For a chance at success, Direct Air will probably need to expand from Myrtle Beach, which is a seasonal market and would not be profitable all year, Zoeller said.

That message is not lost on company executives. Earlier this year, the company dropped "Myrtle Beach" from its name and has started flying to Florida from other cities. But the company says Myrtle Beach, where it was the fourth-largest carrier in 2008, remains a primary focus.

For the first time, Direct Air will have a low-cost competitor in one of its smaller markets. Allegiant Air, a new entry to Myrtle Beach this year, will also fly to Allentown.

Tull said she is not worried. But she did say that Direct Air is sometimes overlooked by local marketing groups, who work with airlines to get new service and sometimes offer incentives.

"They're soliciting carriers to come here," she said. "Why not come to the people that are based here, that work here, that are part of the community?"

Dean said the chamber provides all the marketing support it can to all the carriers that serve Myrtle Beach. He said the chamber is running television ads in the Buffalo area plugging Direct Air's nonstop service, and also declined to exclusively market Allegiant's new Allentown route over Direct Air's route.

"That's a good indication of just how competitive the airline industry is," Dean said. "That is in essence one of the great challenges Direct Air faces. Any market they choose, other airlines will be watching their success closely and likely follow them if in fact the market turns out to be a profitable venture."

Tull said Direct Air's customer loyalty should help the company weather any competition. One of those customers is Joanne Kuba, 54, who said she flies Direct Air into busy Newark Liberty Airport as often as she can to visit family.

"Newark is an insane asylum," Kuba said. "If Newark is flying this smoothly, the other places have to be 10 times better."

Direct Air

Founded | Late 2006

Managing partners | 5

Aircraft | 4

Cities it serves | 14

Passengers it carried out of Myrtle Beach in 2008 | 55,675

Starting price of most round-trip tickets | $220