Airline aims to add 7 destinations from MB: Charter service works on grant, incentives

Jul. 13--Myrtle Beach could get direct flights to a slew of new cities if plans from one of the area's newest companies get off the ground.

Myrtle Beach Direct Air & Tours, the seasonal charter air service that started flying to three cities this year, is also hoping to add limited service in the winter.

With help from a pending federal grant and incentives from other cities, the company is considering adding flights to Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla.; Gulfport, Miss.; Nassau, Bahamas; Plattsburgh, N.Y.; Rockford, Ill.; Worcester, Mass.; and Dallas-Fort Worth.

"It all comes down to expenses and if we can do it," said Ed Warneck, president of the start-up. "So far it's been real, real difficult."

The company, which is making a profit this month for the first time, currently runs 20 flights a week to Niagara Falls, N.Y., Newark, N.J., and Pittsburgh. It recently upgraded to bigger planes with first-class areas that seat 150 passengers, up from 124, run by Xtra Airways, based out of Elko, Nev.

"Now we're able to handle all the golf bags," Warneck said. "In the spring and fall, that's quite a feat."

The moves go against a strategy outlined by the company in March. Company executives then said they hoped to beat the odds in the volatile charter airline industry and stay alive by not expanding to other cities too fast and staying seasonal.

Now, they say they want to provide some service through the winter months for continuity's sake, so they keep up the momentum from the $1 million in advertising already invested.

"We think that putting the baton down for a few months could hurt us," Warneck said.

Plus, a U.S. Department of Transportation grant could help offset the cost of expanding.

"We're certainly not going to pass by money that's given to us," CEO Judy Tull said.

They're hoping the $625,000 grant comes through to subsidize service to three of the new cities: Plattsburgh, N.Y., Rockford, Ill., and Dallas-Fort Worth.

The cities were chosen based on demand, said Mickey McCamish, president of marketing group Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday.

"Those are all strong golf markets for us," he said.

Horry County, which owns Myrtle Beach International Airport, the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce and Golf Holiday paid BACK Aviation, a consulting firm, to submit the grant application to the DOT. Officials expect a decision in August.

The county says the service could attract 20,000 new visitors -- and $48 million -- to Myrtle Beach. The county has raised $768,198 toward the program, according to grant documents.

The county says it needs the grant to offset the loss of Hooters Air and AirTran Airways. Hooters went bust in April 2006, and AirTran stopped flying to Myrtle Beach last fall.

Hooters Air used to run flights to Rockford, which is about 85 miles from Chicago and 95 miles from Milwaukee. Myrtle Beach Direct hopes to run four round-trip flights there from March through October 2008, according to the grant.

The grant would provide a $175,000 direct subsidy to Myrtle Beach Direct for a down payment for additional aircraft and marketing services.

Plattsburgh, N.Y., and Rockford, Ill., are willing to waive so-called landing fees, or the cost for airlines of doing business with an airport, according to the grant request. Grand Strand business leaders have criticized Myrtle Beach's relatively high fees for an airport its size.

Those cities, with Myrtle Beach, will also put more than $600,000 toward marketing.

As for winter service, the company wants to add a leg to Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla., and a couple of flights to Gulfport, Miss., and Nassau, Bahamas. The company's regular flights from the north would stop over in Myrtle Beach and continue through to St. Petersburg, Fla., Tull said.

So far, Niagara Falls, N.Y., has been Myrtle Beach Direct's biggest success, drawing visitors from Canada and the northern New York region, company officials said.

Myrtle Beach has never received this DOT grant, dubbed the Small Community Air Service Development Program, according to the grant application. Though the grant was tailored for Myrtle Beach Direct, if the company folds, the county can use the funds for other airlines, McCamish said.

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Fast facts

Current cities to which Myrtle Beach Direct Air & Tours flies:

Newark, N.J.

Pittsburgh

Niagara Falls, N.Y.

Potential adds:

Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla.

Gulfport, Miss.

Nassau, Bahamas

Plattsburgh, N.Y.

Rockford, Ill.

Worcester, Mass.

Dallas-Fort Worth

Contact LISA FLEISHER at 626-0317 or lfleisher@thesunnews.com

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