AirTran Departs Myrtle Beach

Dec. 21 -- AirTran Airways will not return to Myrtle Beach come spring, taking away a vital, low-cost link to Atlanta.

The airline, which ended its seasonal service Nov. 6, couldn't draw enough passengers, especially higher-paying business travelers, AirTran spokeswoman Judy Graham-Weaver said.

Fliers from Myrtle Beach liked the AirTran service because the airline has a hub in Atlanta, allowing travelers to pick up connecting flights to about 50 destinations, including Tampa, Fla.; New York; Denver; Kansas City, Mo.; and Washington, D.C.

The fares also were low, leaving some speculating that AirTran's departure could cause prices to rise.

AirTran stuck around the beach longer than usual this year, through October, only to still be disappointed in the numbers.

"The route has still not produced the results we need," Graham-Weaver said. "We were disappointed with the results from the market this summer and even extending the season this year did not help produce the profitability factor we need."

Already, Delta is stepping up to fill the void. The airline announced this week that it will use bigger planes to fly the Myrtle Beach-Atlanta route starting this summer, offering more seats.

AirTran is the fourth-largest airline serving the Myrtle Beach International Airport, carrying 59,225 passengers out of Myrtle Beach during its seven months of service in 2006, according to statistics from Horry County, which operates the airport.

By comparison, the largest carrier, U.S. Airways, flew out 211,603 passengers in 2006.

Myrtle Beach's seasonal nature makes it tricky for airlines. Most pull out or cut back in the winter and return along with the tourists in the spring.

With AirTran's low fares gone, prices could creep up, said Mickey McCamish, executive director of marketing group Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday who actively pursues airlines. "Anytime you lose a low-cost carrier like AirTran, there's potential for ticket prices to rise," he said.

With a new 14-gate terminal on the horizon, Horry County officials downplayed AirTran's decision to leave, saying it represented only 5 percent of the airport's total departures and 9 percent of the total seats during its years here. AirTran pulling out of the beach doesn't negate the need for the terminal, said Lisa Bourcier, spokeswoman for Horry County.

"Passenger growth at the airport has increased an average of 6 percent per year over the past decade," she said. "The new terminal is needed to accommodate the passenger growth that is forecast to continue."

This year traffic is down at the airport, which officials have blamed on having fewer seats to fill. Through November, the number of passengers leaving the beach is off last year's numbers by 8.8 percent, while incoming traffic is down 9.49 percent, according to Horry County statistics.

AirTran's departure comes as two charter air services plan to come to Myrtle Beach this spring, though neither had plans to pick up AirTran's route to Atlanta.

Myrtle Beach Direct plans to fly to Pittsburgh, Newark, N.J., and Niagara Falls, N.Y., while Southern Skyways will fly to Charleston, W.Va., Allentown, Pa., and Cincinnati.

"We believe the recent new service announcements by low-cost operators Myrtle Beach Direct Air and Southern Skyways who, combined, will provide nonstop service to six markets, will more than offset any affect from AirTran's current decisions," Bourcier said in an e-mail.

AirTran rarely calls it quits in a market. The last time the airline permanently pulled out of a city was three years ago when it ditched Tallahassee, Fla., and Greensboro, N.C., Graham-Weaver said.

"We don't like pulling out of any market we serve," she said. "We've given it a try but unfortunately it just didn't produce the profitability we need."

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About AirTran

Hub -- Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport

Myrtle Beach passengers in 2006 -- 59,225

Fourth-largest airline serving Myrtle Beach International Airport

Copyright (c) 2006, The Sun News, Myrtle Beach, S.C.



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