Charleston airports Director Sue Stevens uses one phrase so frequently these days that her husband teases that she says it in her sleep: "We talk to all the airlines all the time."
That's been the Charleston County Aviation Authority's standard response when asked about its efforts to attract a new discount carrier or to expand services with airlines already serving the market.
The question comes up a lot since AirTran Airways, Charleston's only low-cost airline, pulled out in December.
Riding in a motor coach to Columbia on Wednesday morning, Stevens broke from her go-to answer and shared with local tourism professionals exactly what she tells prospective carriers.
She handed out a 12-page presentation to the local delegation heading up to the S.C. Hospitality Association's annual A Taste of South Carolina event, where business leaders can pitch their causes to lawmakers over shrimp and grits and sweet tea.
The presentation started with a history and aerial images of the airport facilities, then worked to dispel myths, including one nagging rumor that it costs more to fly into and out of Charleston than other airports in the region.
The cost per passenger enplaned, in reality, ranks well below any peer airports, at $4.23. Myrtle Beach comes in at $6.48, Columbia at $8.05 and Greenville-Spartanburg at $9.47, according to Stevens.
She also took issue with the old saying, "You have to go to Atlanta or Charlotte to get to heaven from Charleston." With 13 direct flights to various cities, Stevens said, "That is no longer the case."
And one more, that Charleston's passengers fell off over the years. The airport instead saw a 2 percent increase between 2005 and 2009, while Myrtle Beach fell 5 percent, Columbia dropped 29 percent and Greenville-Spartanburg decreased 30 percent, she said.
"The demand is there," Stevens said, pointing out that the slight increase in passengers coincided with a major decrease in available seats, a 24 percent loss since the third quarter of 2007.
She also acknowledged the steep climb in ticket prices here, especially after losing AirTran's sway on the major carriers.
"Even the graphs that show low airfares, the reality is they no longer exist," Stevens said.
Courting new air service, she added, is the most important role she plays at the aviation authority.
"We have talked to several carriers," Stevens said. "Exactly who we don't talk about a lot because the airlines don't want us to. It's the old 'kiss and tell.' "
Making the case for more air service is especially important now, with a bill stalled in the Senate that would establish the S.C. Air Services Incentive and Development Fund under the state Aeronautics Commission.
The fund would provide grants to economic development groups for attracting new carriers and flights. In theory, the competition should lead to lower air fares.
To fill its coffers, the Aeronautics Commission could borrow up to $15 million from the Insurance Reserve Fund. The bill also spells out how to repay the Insurance Reserve Fund from aircraft property tax revenues.
The Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau brought talking points for the passengers onboard two motor coaches, about 100 people in all, and urged the local hospitality professionals to tell lawmakers what that bill would mean for them.
They wore vintage-style pins with a plane icon and the phrase "I care about air."
Helen Hill, the visitors bureau's executive director, announced to the bus passengers after Stevens' presentation: "OK, so now for all the stuff Sue can't tell you."
Hill said a group of Midlands senators, after realizing low-fare kingpin Southwest Airlines had snubbed Columbia, continues to stonewall the air incentives bill. Urging her audience to target those lawmakers while in Columbia on Wednesday, Hill said, "This is what is standing between us and low-cost carriers."