Spirit Airlines will start flights to five cities from Myrtle Beach earlier than usual next year, helping fill a void left by now defunct Direct Air and giving travelers more options during what is traditionally the beach's slow season.
Spirit, which carries about half the passengers each year at Myrtle Beach International Airport, said Thursday that flights to Chicago; Detroit; Latrobe, Pa.; Charleston, W.Va.; and Niagara Falls, N.Y., would start in February and early March -- between a month and three months earlier than usual. Myrtle Beach-based Direct Air flew to some of those cities, but the carrier abruptly shut down and filed for bankruptcy in March.
"There has been a decrease in flights from these markets to/from Myrtle Beach in the February-April months in 2013 compared to previous years, and we are simply stepping in to serve that demand,'' Spirit spokeswoman Misty Pinson said.
Daily nonstop flights to Chicago, Detroit and Latrobe will start Feb. 14. Two weekly flights to Niagara Falls, N.Y., will start Feb. 15, then increase to four weekly flights April 25. Two weekly flights to Charleston, W.Va., will start March 2, then increase to three a week April 25. Most of the flights are starting just before the $118 million new terminal and airport expansion is scheduled to be fully operational Feb. 19.
"These are all really strong markets,'' said Kirk Lovell, spokesman for Myrtle Beach International Airport. ``This is great for growing the season.''
The early start of flights from these five cities -- among some of the big golf and vacation markets for the Grand Strand -- could jump start the season and help the airport's sagging passenger numbers, which prompted officials to step up efforts to keep and boost air service. Through October this year, the number of outgoing passengers is down 16 percent from the same 10-month period in 2011, which was a record year for the airport.
Officials have blamed the drops in traffic on shifts in the industry that have left Myrtle Beach with fewer seats to fill, with airlines including Spirit cutting some flights and the frequency of others. The airport also lost Direct Air, which flew to Niagara Falls, the Latrobe-Pittsburgh area and other cities.
Aiming to turn around the downward trend, airport officials, along with the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce and marketing group Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday, have been courting airlines that don't fly to Myrtle Beach and urging those that do to keep flights around longer in the fall and start earlier in the spring. Most airlines either stop flying to Myrtle Beach or cut back on the flights they do have during the slow winter season, then ramp back up in the spring.
"We've really been focusing on improving access in our shoulder seasons,'' Lovell said. ``It just shows that Myrtle Beach is a strong market.''
Spirit, which has some flights year-round in Myrtle Beach, carries most of the passengers at the airport. Through October this year, Spirit carried 313,705 passengers out of Myrtle Beach, according to airport statistics. That's nearly half of the total number of passengers on all carriers that flew out of the airport during that 10-month period, 657,684. For all of 2011, 878,180 passengers flew out of the airport -- a record mark that the airport won't reach this year.
"We did take a step back in terms of passenger traffic,'' said Bill Golden, president of Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday. ``This is one step in the right direction,'' he said of the Spirit flights' early start.
Golf Holiday plans to kick off advertising in those markets at the start of the year that will tell golfers about Spirit's earlier flights.
"Certainly those markets are all markets where we have considerable demand,'' he said.
More announcements of extended flights or new service could be in the works in the coming weeks, as airlines put the finishing touches on their spring schedules.
"There's a lot of conversations going on,'' Golden said. ``Let's keep our fingers crossed.''