Passenger traffic at Myrtle Beach International Airport is on track to set a record this year, although airport officials and analysts remain cautious.
Since January, 228,000 passengers have boarded at Myrtle Beach International Airport. That is a 1.5 percent increase over the 224,626 boarding passengers at the airport during the same period in 2000, its busiest year.
"We're ahead of where we were, but it is still early and I would caution about being too aggressive on our forecast for the rest of the year," said Bob Kemp, Horry County's airports director. "There are still some inconsistencies and some fluctuations that occur, and the airline industry is still very volatile.
"April came back very strong, and so far, May appears to be very strong," Kemp said. "The pre-2001 trends seem to be returning."
Across the nation, airport passenger traffic tripped in 2001, when a downturn in the economy and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks nearly crushed the airline industry and altered Americans' travel habits.
Bill Oliver, vice president of The Boyd Group, said 2000 was a benchmark year for airport traffic.
"That was the last hurrah," Oliver said. "The traffic is rebounding and carriers are having excellent loads, but they're still struggling on the revenue side. I side with your airport director on the side of caution, but your numbers are certainly in line with the growth on the national average, and with some areas that exceed the national average."
Brad Dean, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, said April's passenger traffic in Myrtle Beach was tremendous.
"Short of some significant change in the economy or other uncontrollable events, it would appear that we're on track to exceed 800,000 deplanements this year," Dean said. "We are starting to see that the dual efforts between the chamber and Golf Holiday to try to target new markets is paying off."
Mickey McCamish, president of Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday, said the organization has worked closely with the chamber of commerce to offer co-op marketing for airlines serving Myrtle Beach, including newcomer United, which began service in February.
"We can go out and get the carriers to come in here, but if we don't market the flights in the communities where the air service is coming from, those communities don't know the air service exists," McCamish said.
Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday recorded 532,000 rounds of golf played in Myrtle Beach last month. That was just 2,000 short of the 534,000 rounds played in April 2004, making last month the second-busiest April since 1992, when rounds began to be recorded, McCamish said.
On average, golfers spend five days in Myrtle Beach and about $1,300 while they are here, he said.
Both the chamber of commerce and Golf Holiday are hoping to lure a carrier that would operate nonstop flights between Myrtle Beach and Canada.
Kemp said that should be easier now that exchange rates and economies between the United States and Canada are more compatible.
Oliver said he expects U.S. airports to be fully recuperated by next year.
"We were looking in 2006 to get back to the 2000 levels, and it looks like Myrtle Beach is ahead of that curve," he said.
Tourism experts say the record was driven by an increase in nonstop flights and the growing number of visitors coming from areas too far to drive from.
The seat crunch will make it challenging for locals, tourists to get flights unless they plan ahead.
Myrtle Beach International Airport is poised to surpass traffic from 2000, the busiest year in its history.
The airline will cease its public charter flights April 17 and will run only private charters out of Winston Salem, N.C.