A little Southern hospitality helped draw Southwest

Southwest Airlines

Jeff Roberson

Luring Southwest Airlines involved Peninsula Grill chef Robert Carter's famous coconut cake, Wadmalaw-made Sweet Tea Vodka and a barbecue tool affectionately named the "Charleston Hooker."

It did not involve economic incentives.

The low-cost airline announced Tuesday that it would launch service to both Charleston International and Greenville-Spartanburg International airports within a year and that it would do so without the kind of cash cushion that has become so commonplace in courting airlines today. Industry analysts said, as rumors circulated about Southwest, that Charleston couldn't land the company without opening its wallet -- and with good reason.

Southwest starts service to Panama City, Fla., later this month, thanks to a promise from north Florida's biggest real estate developer that it will pay the airline for any losses it incurs during its first years in operation. AirTran Airways, the discount carrier that served Charleston until December, asked for a subsidy to stay in town a few more months, but local officials decided they could end up paying millions of dollars for any long-term commitment.

Two incentives packages sat on the table, waiting for approval. A state bill would set aside $15 million for air service, and a county proposal would impose a 5 percent fee on car rentals for the same purpose.

But Monday night, long after business hours, the members of "Team CHS" -- the local air service group consisting of aviation, tourism and economic development officials -- received calls on their cell phones that effectively put those proposals to rest. Southwest didn't need them.

That's not to say Team CHS didn't do a good bit of deal-sweetening on its own. The courtship between Charleston County and the Dallas-based company included exchanges of presents and intensive wining and dining.

Team CHS greeted the airline representatives at Charleston International, took them on a scenic tour and then brought them to a meeting in the South Carolina Aquarium's board room, around the corner from live exhibits and overlooking Charleston Harbor. That evening they took the Southwest assembly by horse-drawn carriage to the Rooftop Bar at the Market Pavilion Hotel for cocktails and then on to a private dinner at Charleston Grill. They put them up at the elite Club Level at Charleston Place and, the next day, took them on an aerial tour before lunch at the tony Sanctuary on Kiawah Island.

Read more in tomorrow's Post and Courier.