Feb. 17 -- Lagging ticket sales and high airport fees have caused major cutbacks by an upstart carrier aiming to get service off the ground in Myrtle Beach.
Southern Skyways has postponed launching direct flights to Charleston, W.Va., and Cincinnati until May 25 and dropped its third destination, Allentown, Pa.
All the nonstop flights had planned to take off March 2.
Ticketholders will automatically receive refunds, said Cary Evans of Southern Skyways. E-mail notices were being sent to passengers Friday, with refunds expected to be sent Monday, Evans said.
About 1,000 people had bought tickets for Allentown and will be offered discounted tickets to Newark, N.J., on the beach's other upstart carrier, Myrtle Beach Direct Air.
Evans declined to say how many people had bought tickets for the canceled flights to Charleston and Cincinnati.
"Gosh, you hate to see it," said Mickey McCamish, president of Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday, which promotes the Grand Strand. "The bookings were just very, very soft. Any air service like this is unproven and you do take a risk."
The later start could be a hit for golf promoters, who were hoping the extra flights would shuttle more players here for the spring golf season that kicks off next month. Golf Holiday has spent about $30,000 on ads in the Charleston area that mention the flights starting in March.
"The dollars we spent there still markets Myrtle Beach as a desti-
nation," McCamish said.
Officials with Myrtle Beach International Airport were surprised by the news Friday morning, referring questions to Evans.
Evans blamed high fees that airlines pay at Myrtle Beach International Airport with contributing to the carrier's cutbacks. Southern Skyways didn't have to pay fees in Allentown or Charleston but recently received a six-figure bill covering counter space and common areas for two months in Myrtle Beach.
"Right away we have an unexpected $106,000 deposit we have to make to Myrtle Beach International when it's zero in Allentown and zero in Charleston," Evans said. "You can see the difference in who wants air service."
Airport officials have said the fees airlines pay in Myrtle Beach aren't out of line.
Local leaders couldn't say whether Southern Skyways' slow start would doom the upstart carrier, but admit the delays aren't good signs.
"It's not the way you want to start out of the gate," McCamish said. "What you hope is the demand will increase as you get into the late spring golf and summer season."
Charleston is a big tourist market for the Grand Strand, and many local residents hail from West Virginia. Evans expects demand to pick up once the summer travel season kicks in. He's confident Southern Skyways can make it work.
"We certainly believe in Myrtle Beach," Evans said. "We know Myrtle Beach -- as you know it has always historically been summer for Myrtle Beach. The challenge is to fill in around the seasonal aspect of it."
Rick Atkinson, director of Yeager Airport in Charleston, said he was disappointed the flights weren't starting in March, but "I'm confident that it will pan out."
"There is demand," he said.
The planes must be nearly full -- 75 percent of the seats occupied -- for the flights to work, Atkinson said.
"That doesn't leave a lot of room for error," he said.
Southern Skyways is a charter service based in Atlanta.
Myrtle Beach has a turbulent history attracting and keeping air service, which can be tricky to make successful because of the beach's seasonal nature. Hooters Air bailed out a year ago and AirTran decided not to return this year.
A three-day, half-price sale last month helped boost ticket sales for Myrtle Beach Direct Air, the other upstart carrier planning to launch this spring.
So far, about 23,000 tickets have been sold for the first season of flights, representing about 37 percent of the available seats, said Ed Warneck, the carrier's president.
Direct Air will fly nonstop to Niagara Falls, N.Y., Newark and Pittsburgh beginning March 7 and running through October.
"For someone who hasn't put the key in the door, that's pretty good numbers," Warneck said. "We always felt we had to be creative to do things in this market to encourage sales."
At a glance
Southern Skyways cutbacks:
Delayed -- Direct flights to Charleston, W.Va., and Cincinnati will start May 25 instead of March 2.
Nixed -- The carrier has dropped its third destination, Allentown, Pa.
Refunds -- Passengers who already bought tickets to Allentown or tickets for the canceled flights to Charleston and Cincinnati should automatically receive refunds.
The Sun News, Myrtle Beach, S.C. -- 02/19/07
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