Travelers flying out of Charleston International Airport have more choices than ever with eight airlines flying nonstop to 28 airports and 24 cities as of this spring.
“This is great for the people that live in the Lowcountry,” said Paul Campbell, CEO of the Charleston County Aviation Authority. “It’s great for the business community and tourism community.”
Airport officials want to see existing airlines expand routes and new airlines launch service throughout 2018.
Campbell said Alaska Airlines will likely add a destination, possibly on the West Coast, by the end of the year to accompany its five-days-a-week flights to Seattle, which first launched in 2015. He said he expects Allegiant and Frontier to add destinations as they test out the market with seasonal flights.
“People want to come to Charleston, and people in Charleston want to go to these other destinations. ... We’ve become a midsized hub,” Campbell said.
When deciding new routes, airlines study cost-per-enplaned passenger, passenger volumes and available incentives at different airports. The Charleston airport works with the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau to offer marketing perks for incoming airlines.
Airlines also look to launch service in areas with growing populations, at popular tourist destinations or in active business hubs. They want to be sure that planes will be filled coming in and going out before making a financial commitment.
The Lowcountry’s business climate and tourism industry — including the attention given to the region’s restaurants, history and beaches — bring travelers in. Conversely, the desire to explore new cities or visit family and friends, as well as the need to travel for business, has Lowcountry residents flying out, according to several airline officials.
Gary Edwards, a consultant for the aviation authority and the visitors bureau, has recruited airlines to Charleston for 11 years.
He said the dealmaking begins years ahead of any public announcements. Similar to the give-and-take between economic developers and mega manufacturers, airlines study the community and make site visits to determine whether an area will be the right fit.
Edwards presents data showing the cost-per-enplanement, passenger volumes and airport financials, and he tells the “Charleston story” to offer a sense of the community’s draw and growth opportunity.
“It’s part math and part art,” Edwards said. “Any time one aircraft comes into the community, it’s a substantial investment; so we try to justify those investments, and over time, we have shown that we have outperformed those models.”
Airline and airport executives said the Charleston market remains an attractive one in which to launch nonstop service. Campbell said around 15,000 people on average are flying in and out of the terminal each day.
The aviation authority is working to keep pace with this growth following its recent terminal renovation, a $200 million project. Airport staff studied ways to maximize efficiency at airline gates, and it is planning to pursue an expansion of the ticketing check-in area into the adjacent parking lot, Campbell said.
“As people are visiting and doing business here in increasing numbers, the airport is a beneficiary of the growth,” he said. Campbell said the concern is, “Are we providing facilities fast enough?”
‘The Southwest effect’
Southwest Airlines became the fifth airline at Charleston International Airport when it launched in 2011, joining American Airlines and US Airways, which have since merged; Delta Air Lines; and United Airlines.
Southwest spokesman Dan Landson said the airline saw an underserved market with growing business and tourism industries. It launched with flights to Nashville, Tenn., Baltimore, Houston and Chicago.
The discount carrier’s arrival has been credited with sparking the airport’s growth in airlines over the past seven years, ushering in new routes, bigger jets and more flights. Current carriers have added flights; JetBlue, Alaska Airlines, Allegiant and Frontier have launched service.
In the past two years, Southwest added service to Dallas, Denver and St. Louis. The airline now operates nine daily flights on average out of Charleston, making it the airport’s third-largest carrier behind Delta and American, Campbell said.
Landson said the airline’s lower fares have resulted in an 18% decrease overall in fares at the airport, a phenomenon the airline has dubbed “the Southwest effect.”
“We are very pleased with our current operations in Charleston,” Landson said. “Charleston is definitely growing on the popularity map for tourism, so we definitely want to be able to be nimble enough that if there is a need to add new routes, we are able to do that.”
More options ahead
Denver-based Frontier Airlines started operations at Charleston International this year, with five nonstop routes launching in the first six months: seasonal flights to Denver and Philadelphia as of February; Austin, Texas, and Trenton, N.J., as of April; and Chicago as of May.
Daniel Shurz, Frontier’s senior vice president of commercial, said the airline had always been interested in launching flights in the Southeast. He said the Charleston market’s surge in population and popularity, along with the revenue potential at the airport, piqued the airline’s interest.
“It’s a great destination and an increasingly popular destination,” Shurz said. “I think it’s safe to say it’s gone from a primarily regional destination to much more of a national destination. ... We’ll see how it develops. So far, the response from the market has been really good.”
Kristen Schilling-Gonzales, Allegiant’s director of planning, said customer feedback played a big role in launching nonstop flights from Charleston to Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, Indianapolis International Airport and Pittsburgh International Airport. Many of the passengers said they wanted nonstop flights to Charleston; others wanted a quick way to return to their hometowns for visits.
Schilling-Gonzales said determining new routes comes down to being able to fill the flights and make a profit. Charleston’s approaching summer tourism season and population influx compelled the airline to make a move this year. The Las Vegas-based airline also serves the Greenville, Myrtle Beach and Savannah markets.
Airlines often launch seasonal routes to take advantage of a particular time of year likely to attract travelers, as well as to gauge interest and usage from passengers. This data can result in seasonal flights becoming permanent, year-round or withdrawn, airline officials said.
Edwards said the airport has a running list of nonstop flights it wants to see at Charleston — none of which he disclosed — but he said the needs of area businesses and residents play a role in those efforts. He also studies cities with the highest number of passengers flying in and out that lack nonstop routes to Charleston.
Edwards said that in addition to new airlines, he wants to see existing carriers increase the frequency of routes, add new flights or upgrade to larger aircraft.
“The success the carriers have enjoyed here, that conversation is more meaningful in that we have a good bit of credibility in delivering on a promise,” he said. “We don’t suggest things that we hope could happen. We suggest things that we strongly believe will be successful.”
This story originally appeared in the April 16, 2018, print edition of the Charleston Regional Business Journal.