More terminals, gates, parking and passengers are all part of Myrtle Beach International Airport’s proposed master plan that looks at the airport’s future needs.
The FAA-required document with a 20-year outlook is currently in development, and after a second public meeting this summer, the airport would like to submit its final plan to the FAA in November or December, although Horry County Director of Airports Scott Van Moppes told the Myrtle Beach Planning Commission during a March 16 meeting that it could take until the first quarter of next year.
The airport, which directly serves about 50 markets with nine airlines, is only responsible for bringing less than 5% of the Grand Strand’s tourists to the area each year, but it plays a crucial role in opening up the beach to parts of the country that aren’t in easy driving distance.
“It’s probably well over 95% that drive to the area, but out of the 20 million visitors that come here, we still have a lot coming via the airport,” said Diane Charno, vice president, brand and communications for Visit Myrtle Beach, the tourism arm of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. “I think it was over 1.3 million deplanements in 2019. So that’s still an important access point to the beach, and it’s something that’s grown a lot."
For example, Myrtle Beach is less than a day’s drive from places like Charlotte, Wilmington, Raleigh and other metropolitan areas along the East Coast. The same can’t be said for St. Louis, Dallas or Denver.
Dallas-based Southwest Airlines announced Thursday that it will offer direct flights to Myrt…
“We know that if people haven’t been here before or if it’s a longer road trip, by providing access via air service, it’s an easier option for them to visit our market for the first time,” Charno said. “With a popular destination of our size, we’re targeting up to 70, 80 markets during our peak season in the summer. So we do have pretty broad reach already but we’re always looking. We know if we attract new visitors, they’re more likely to return after having a great experience and become repeat visitors. And if anything, they’re also maybe even more likely to move here in the future, and that’s all good things for the Grand Strand.”
The airport has been growing over the past decade and airport officials don't think it will slow down. According to MYR, the FAA estimates a 2% annual growth rate for airports, but Myrtle Beach International has had an average 6.5% increase in enplanements (people getting on planes) every year since 2010. The airport saw a 37% increase between 2016 and 2019.
Since 2012, passenger traffic through the airport grew more than 76%, Charno said, and the airport has attracted three new airlines in the past five years.
Those are Frontier Airlines, Sun Country Airlines and Southwest Airlines, which will start service from 10 cities this summer, including Nashville, Dallas, Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago and Indianapolis, and a handful of northern destinations as well.
“We do have pretty good coverage in the Northeast and more in the Midwest. We want to continue to add to that,” Charno said. “So we’re really excited about the addition of Southwest.”
During a discussion of the master plan for the planning commission, Van Moppes attributed the airport’s growth to its low cost to airlines.
“The reason we’ve been so successful, the most successful in adding destinations in the entire state, is because we keep our costs down below that of others, and that’s how we’ve been able to attract three airlines in five years,” he said, adding that “each of them has commented how low our cost of doing business here is.”
To bring in new airlines, the airport works closely with the chamber to find underserved and unserved markets with enough demand, said MYR air service and business analyst Lauren Whrung in an email. The airport also uses airline data reported to the U.S. Department of Transportation and U.S. Census data, she said.
The chamber of commerce has a symbiotic relationship with the airport, marketing to residents in areas that have air service to the beach, and using tourist data to help the airport find attractive new markets for service.
“What we do provide is regular information on what we see from visitors,” Charno said, citing visitor origin data from cellphones. “I can find insights from where people came from, no matter whether they came by car or airplane. Same with Visa card spending, I kind of know origin of visitors based on how they spend money in the area, and that can give us a lot of insight as well. I think it helps them understand potential opportunities for markets and growth.”
The airport’s master plan was last revised in 2001. With all the growth, it needs an update. In 2018, more than 1.25 million people flew out of MYR. In 2023, the airport is expecting almost 1.7 million people to take off. By 2028, the number is projected at 1.87 million, and 2.31 million in 2038.
While COVID-19 grounded growth last year, MYR is recovering faster than most airports across the country, which the airport says is because its proportion of leisure travel supported by tourism is larger than other airports. The airfield also saw quick recoveries after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks and the great recession.
By 2023, the airport is projecting that it will need more aircraft gates, terminals and concourse space, curb frontage and parking. The same goes for 2028 and 2038, when the airport predicts a need for 28 aircraft gates, far more than the 11 in use right now. According to the plan, the airport already needs 13 gates, more cell phone lot parking, employee parking, and terminal and concourse space.
During the last terminal expansion in 2009, most aircraft flying in to the airport had around 100 seats. Now, the number of planes with fewer than 150 seats has decreased, and planes with more than 150 seats represent a plurality of aircraft flying into the beach.
“MYR is well above most every other airport in terms of recovery,” Moppes told the planning commission. “As you can see, two years from now, we’re going to be undersized for the number of people we have traveling through the airport.”
While the airport hasn’t decided on any final designs for its expansion, the plans call for “enhancements” to its airfield capacity. There’s only one runway for large commercial passenger jets, but what the airfield will require is still vague.
“MYR’s existing airfield and runway capacity is sufficient to meet our current needs,” said Ryan Betcher, MYR’s director of general aviation and properties. “The airport staff is working with the FAA and aviation planning consultants to identify future, long-term requirements as part of the master planning process. The term 'enhancements' may include existing and future airfield infrastructure, airfield configuration/geometry, and taxiway/ramp areas. Any airfield capacity modification or expansion would be based on future demand and FAA recommendations.”
Van Moppes told planning commissioners that there is no rush to look at hypotheticals of how to increase capacity.
“Additions are probably going to be required in the future,” he said. “But if you look at the year, those enhancements are well out, years and years away. The alternatives are really not even worth looking at yet. They’re so up in the air. Southwest coming in so recently has kind of screwed those as well, so we’re kind of scrambling around. As you can see, we’re talking seven years away.”
The first public meeting as part of the master planning process occurred virtually in January. Wehrung said in an email that the next public meeting would occur mid-summer.
“We intend to have the next public meeting in-person; however, due to COVID, we’ll have to take necessary precautions to reduce the risk of spreading the virus, which may lead to another virtual meeting,” she wrote. “If the meeting is held in person, the public will be able to provide input at the meeting via suggestion/message box.”
If the meeting is held virtually, the public can give their input through a “feedback/comment” tab within the master plan page of the airport’s website.
Before COVID hit, the airport finished setting up a new federal inspection station, aka, a customs area. Canada’s Porter Airlines was the only international carrier to operate out of Myrtle Beach until the pandemic, and Van Moppes said he was eagerly waiting for Canada to open back up again.
But he also told them he was in discussions with other airlines outside the U.S. He kept their identities a secret.
“I can’t tell you the other airlines I’ve had discussions with, but there are two,” he said. “They are across a border. It’s one of those things I’m sorry I can’t share.”