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American Eagle pulls Dallas service to Myrtle Beach

American Eagle Airlines will discontinue service that began last year from Dallas to Myrtle Beach because of too few passengers, spokesman Ed Martelle said Thursday.

Grand Strand business people and officials praised the seasonal route when it launched in April 2010, saying it would open Myrtle Beach to vacationers in the western United States.

American Eagle - one of three airlines to introduce new routes connecting to Myrtle Beach in 2010 - is the only carrier that won't continue its new route in 2011.

Passenger numbers to and from Myrtle Beach more than doubled for Allegiant Air after it began flights to four additional destinations last year, according to statistics released Wednesday. Those seasonal routes are set to begin again in May.

There's some discussion that Allegiant could further expand service, said Michael La Pier, director of Myrtle Beach International Airport, but Allegiant President Andrew Levy said fuel costs will prevent any additions in 2011.

Porter Airlines, which introduced seasonal flights to Toronto in 2010, will resume that service for the spring on Thursday. The airline will double the number of roundtrips it makes to four times a week, airport officials announced in November.

American Eagle had provided the only direct service from Myrtle Beach to Dallas, and the airline did not operate any other flights connecting with Myrtle Beach. The airline carried more than 7,000 passengers from Dallas to Myrtle Beach on the route before the seasonal service ended in October, according to airport statistics. The planes on that route held fewer than 50 passengers.

"Ultimately, that's the decision you make: that the service is not being used with enough frequency or density - not enough people are getting on the airplane - to justify the expense of flying," Martelle said.

American Eagle informed Myrtle Beach International Airport in late 2010 that it would not restart the service, La Pier said. The airport left the decision of whether to announce the change to American Eagle, he said.

Fort Worth-based American Eagle Airlines is a subsidiary of AMR Corp., which also owns American Airlines.

The planes American Eagle used couldn't hold enough golf bags, contributing to the route's failure, but was otherwise a good partner, La Pier said. Martelle said nothing he had heard indicated that carrying golf bags was a problem.

"Dallas could be a successful market in the future, but it has to be operated with the right-sized aircraft," La Pier said.

The airport will look for opportunities to connect with other Western destinations, which might include Dallas, in the future, he said.

Bill Golden of marketing firm Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday praised the launch of the route in 2010, but said Thursday that too few people flying and not enough space for golf bags was the reason it failed. Golf Holiday, which helped market the new flight to those in the Dallas area, is focusing on filling seats on existing routes in 2011 rather than looking for new service, Golden said.

Compared to American Eagle, Allegiant Air's four new flight routes have succeeded and are set to continue in 2011, Levy said.

More than 78,000 people flew to or from the airport on Allegiant in 2010, up from 27,276 in 2009. Flights to Fort Wayne, Ind.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; Knoxville, Tenn.; and Youngstown, Ohio, were added to existing routes to Allentown, Pa., and Huntington, W.Va., which began in 2009.

That's not as many as Allegiant expected, Levy said, so some flights will start later in the spring and end earlier in the fall.

"The two markets that we've served into Myrtle Beach - Huntington and Allentown - those performed well again," Levy said. "Of the new routes we operated, I think we had generally mixed results. I think some met expectations, and some did not."

All flights will resume on May 19 or May 20 for the 2011 tourist season, roughly a month later than the 2010 start dates.

The number of passengers on Allegiant is small compared to the millions who vacation on the Strand every year, but they could help set up future growth, said Taylor Damonte, director of the Clay Brittain Jr. Center for Resort Tourism at Coastal Carolina University.

"There's this theoretical model of tourism development where destinations are discovered by jetsetters, and they go back home and tell all their friends about it, and then their friends go back," he said.

As awareness of Myrtle Beach grows in an area, charter and seasonal air service could grow to permanent service, Damonte said.

Fliers tend to stay longer and spend more than drivers, Damonte said.

Although fliers make up about 6 percent to 8 percent of visitors, there's potential for that share to grow significantly in the long term, he said. The terminal expansion project, adding six new gates by July 2012, is a step in the right direction, and progress is being made with each new destination, Damonte said.

The Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce continues to court airlines to introduce new destinations, spokeswoman Nora Hembree said.

"The expansion of the airport is going to help infinitely with that courtship process," Hembree said.

Levy said he is concerned that airport expansion costs will be passed onto airlines and their passengers. Allegiant, a discount carrier, operates on thin margins, he said.

"If you exclude that particular - what I view as a negative - we like the market. We like the way it's been done," Levy said.