EDITORIAL: Without a Net: FAA bombshell leaves local leaders no option but to get air service right

Jun. 24--The long-envisioned regional airport to serve Myrtle Beach, Wilmington, N.C., and Florence died last week. That's good -- and not only because the regional airport effort was shaping up as bad news for our communities. The demise of the concept also redoubles pressure on local political leaders to fix -- really fix -- air service at Myrtle Beach International Airport, in the knowledge that there is no other airport option.

Credit the death of the regional airport to the Federal Aviation Administration. An FAA official told a meeting of regional political and business leaders last week that there would be no federal financial support for a regional airport unless existing airports in all three cities declared an end to commercial air service.

Myrtle Beach City Councilman Wayne Gray, who attended that meeting, rightly predicted that political leaders in all three cities will not do that. "I don't see that as a practical reality or as in the best interest of serving those communities," he said. "I just don't see the benefits."

Neither do we. And considering that a new regional airport would be at least a $100 cab ride away from the beach and golf venues that fuel the local economy, this FAA bombshell doesn't have much of a down side. The Myrtle Beach airport is far from ideal, but its central location and ease of access make it easy to use.

The challenge now is for the local leaders working on air-service improvements to ensure that their efforts succeed. But there are two good reasons to fear that failure lurks ahead:

Our airport offers too few direct flights to Dallas, Chicago and other cities with huge repositories of golfers, vacationers and retirees who would come to our communities if they could fly here at a reasonable cost. But too-high per-passenger costs at the Myrtle Beach airport discourage such airlines as Allegiant and JetBlue from initiating air service to such cities. Spirit Air last year initiated what have become highly successful direct flights between Myrtle Beach and Boston -- but only with the help of local subsidies.

As the recently published airport cost study from the Boyd Group established, it would not be necessary to subsidize airlines to fly here if Horry County officials, who run the airport, cut airport fees. But county officials show no sense of urgency about cutting airline costs -- which they should be able to do now that it's no longer necessary to stockpile money for the defunct terminal project on the airport's west side.

In the wake of the terminal cancellation this month, the county and the city of Myrtle Beach convened an ad hoc committee to devise new ways of improving air service to Myrtle Beach. But the committee is overburdened with local government officials. The only private-side leaders in the group -- thus far -- are Brad Dean of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce and Scott Brandon of Brandon Advertising. Local hoteliers should also be represented. So should Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday (which helped pay for the Boyd study) and the Myrtle Beach Area Hospitality Association. And so should top developers and golf course owners.

The FAA bombshell last week means local leaders are working without a net to fix air service. It is no exaggeration to say that our communities' prospects for economic growth would suffer if petty squabbles and shortsightedness cause this air service effort to crash and burn.

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