More flights boosting passenger numbers at Myrtle Beach airport

Seasonal flights starting earlier than usual this year boosted passenger numbers at Myrtle Beach International Airport, and officials expect growth to continue headed into the busy summer tourist season with new flights kicking off this month.

The airport had its busiest March and April in the past six and seven years, thanks to seasonal flights on Spirit Airlines, WestJet and others starting in March and April.

“A few spring routes started earlier this year, providing more seats for us to fill,” said Brad Dean, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, which promotes the Grand Strand to tourists.

More seasonal flights are about to kick in. Allegiant Air, the airport’s fourth-busiest carrier, resumes its usual seasonal flights to four destinations Thursday and Friday. And Allegiant will start service to four new destinations later this month: Lexington, Ky.; Syracuse, N.Y., and Columbus, Ohio, on May 29 and Cincinnati on May 30.

“We anticipate continued increases through the summer with improved load factors and additional capacity beginning in May in four new markets,” Dean said. “We are very optimistic about the summer season. While the booking trend occurs later and later each year, we are poised to have a strong summer season.”

About 215,715 passengers have flown into the airport through April this year, up about 6 percent compared to the same four months in 2013, according to airport statistics. The airport had a rough start in 2014 with year-over-year declines in January and February, which officials blame on the winter-weather cancellations. During the first three months of the year, U.S. airlines canceled the most flights in the 20 years the government has collected the data, most of them because of the weather.

But traffic in Myrtle Beach has improved the past two months as several airlines including Spirit Airlines -- which makes up half the airport’s passenger numbers -- kicked in seasonal flights earlier than usual and more stability in the airline industry has led carriers to boost their presence in markets such as Myrtle Beach, airport spokesman Kirk Lovell said.

About 79,012 passengers flew into the airport in April, about 10,400 more than in April 2013. It was the busiest April at MYR since 2007, according to airport statistics.

“The airlines are adding capacity back into the market,” Lovell siad. “The overall industry is starting to recover. The industry as a whole is getting stronger.”

That has led to more seat capacity -- or available seats -- to Myrtle Beach. Through April this year, about 287,279 seats were available for booking -- about 10,370 more than the same four months in 2013.

Allegiant has seen so much demand for Myrtle Beach that for the first time, it is setting up a temporary base here this summer with a plane and crew, which gave the carrier the flexibility to double the number of destinations it serves from Myrtle Beach, spokeswoman Jessica Wheeler said.

“We think there is a lot of potential in Myrtle Beach,” she said. “It is certainly popular with a lot of travelers coming out of the Northeast and Midwest.”

WestJet resumed its flights to Canada in March, about two months earlier than its inaugural year in Myrtle Beach last year. About 1,668 passengers took WestJet flights to Myrtle Beach in March and April, according to airport statistics.

Spirit’s traffic soared in April, up nearly 9,000 arriving passengers to 41,300 compared to April 2013.

Spirit’s flights to Philadelphia and Charleston, W.Va., resumed in late March, a couple of weeks earlier than last year. Last year, Spirit moved up the restart of flights to five cities including Chicago and Detroit, and kept those earlier starts this year.

The earlier starts on Spirit helped last year, but “now it’s really taken hold” as travelers learn they are an option, Lovell said. Spirit declined to comment on the performance of its Myrtle Beach flights and what it expects during the summer.

Crews are busy adding more parking spaces at the airport, with an additional 575 spaces on schedule to be ready by the end of May, Lovell said.

“Hopefully we will see passenger trends similar to the past two months,” Lovell said.