Spirit Airlines to start some routes to Myrtle Beach earlier next year, considers adding new destinations

Spirit Airlines, which carries half the passengers each year from Myrtle Beach, plans to start some routes earlier than usual next spring and potentially add flights to new destinations.

Flights from Myrtle Beach to the popular destinations of Latrobe, Pa., and Charleston, W.Va., will start in February or March instead of May as the airline aims to capture some spring break travelers and extend the season, said Barry Biffle, Spirit’s chief marketing officer.

And the carrier is considering flying to new destinations from Myrtle Beach starting next year, though Biffle declined to say which cities are in the running. Spirit, which has added at least one new destination from Myrtle Beach every year since 2009, will announce new routes by the end of the year, he said.

“We are very interested in growing Myrtle Beach,” Biffle said last week. “We are looking at a number of new routes to serve next year. We haven’t made a final decision.”

Biffle talked about Spirit’s intentions in Myrtle Beach following a summer of declining passenger numbers locally for the airline, which flies nonstop to about 10 destinations from Myrtle Beach during the peak summer season including its most popular route to New York; Atlantic City, N.J.; Plattsburgh, N.Y., and Niagara Falls, N.Y.

Officials blamed the declining number of passengers on fewer flights -- Spirit scaled back daily service to Washington, D.C., to weekends only then eventually stopped flying there, dropped flights to Atlanta and didn’t fly to Niagara Falls in early summer because of runway construction there. Still, it added flights to Dallas-Fort Worth that kicked off in May.

“That was the difference. We didn’t add as much as we subtracted,” Biffle said. “At this point, we expect growth to resume next year.”

Myrtle Beach International Airport aims to regain the lost capacity in time for next year’s busy travel season and hopes to see Spirit add one or two destinations, said Mike La Pier, Horry County’s airports director. He declined to mention specific destinations that are being considered, saying he didn’t want to tip off other airports that might be trying to lure the same service.

“We are hopeful of reinstating the capacity that we lost last year,” La Pier said. “And we are hopeful of picking up maybe one or two more markets that are new.”

Although Myrtle Beach has a high awareness along the east coast that makes serving those cities logical, it gets harder when considering destinations in the central time zone because Myrtle Beach isn’t as well known in that part of the country, Biffle said.

Any shifts in Spirit’s passenger numbers -- like the declines during the summer -- have a huge effect on Myrtle Beach International Airport because the airline carries about half the airport’s traffic each year. Spirit carried about 50,000 fewer passengers through September this year than the same nine-month period in 2011; 280,938 outgoing passengers through September this year compared to 331,181 through September last year, according to airport statistics.

Spirit’s cutbacks -- combined with the loss of Myrtle Beach-based Direct Air when it abruptly stopped flying and filed for bankruptcy in March -- led to double-digit percentage drops in overall passenger numbers at Myrtle Beach International Airport, which is amid a $118 million expansion and is coming off two consecutive years of record passenger numbers.

About 592,920 passengers have flown out of the airport through September this year -- about 116,807 fewer than the same period in 2011, according to airport statistics. U.S. Airways has the second highest passenger numbers in Myrtle Beach, followed by Delta.

La Pier said the airport is working to bring in additional carriers so the airport isn’t so reliant on one airline. But for now, Spirit plays a big role.

“They are one of the keys to our future success,” La Pier said.

Passenger numbers for the airport have dropped every month this year except one, including double-digit percentage drops during the busy summer months.

In response, Myrtle Beach’s unofficial air service recruiters -- airport officials, the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce and marketing group Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday -- said they have stepped up efforts in pitching Myrtle Beach to existing carriers and airlines that don’t serve Myrtle Beach aiming to lure them here. On Nov. 2, the group met with Spirit, which has added routes each of the past four years including Dallas-Fort Worth in May and five destinations in 2011.

“We are very aligned with those guys,” Biffle said. “We all want the same thing.”