When the only discount airline serving Charleston International Airport left in December, flight prices on traditional carriers almost immediately reflected the end of that healthy competition.
One local travel agent tracked tickets to New York as they soared from a little more than $200 round-trip without a required overnight stay to nearly $800.
And Charleston-based software maker Blackbaud Inc. announced that it would hold its annual Conference for Nonprofits in the Washington area this year -- not in Charleston -- in part because of the cheaper fares and availability of direct flights to the nation's capital.
The AirTran effect extends beyond Charleston though.
Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport, more than four years later, still suffers from losing Independence Air when the company folded in 2006. Airport Commission Executive Director Dave Edwards said annual boardings numbered about 920,000 during the Independence Air days but total only about 650,000 now.
State lawmakers recently made expanded air service an urgent priority, adding a new bill and provisions in the annual budget that would create funding for that purpose. Sen. Larry Grooms, a Bonneau Republican, even made a failed attempt to add language to the cigarette tax bill for airline incentives money.
The House in March passed a bill, now moving through 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 and, in turn, better 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.
Charleston airports director Sue Stevens described the necessity of those deal-sweeteners in the context of the aggressive and even unorthodox methods now used to court airlines. Southwest Airlines recently added service to Panama City, Fla., for example, after a private developer agreed to subsidize the operation.
Referring to the proposed statewide incentives fund, Stevens said, " I think it's good for all commercial service airports in South Carolina. I think the industry has changed, and that's part of the new dynamics of air service development."
Just weeks after AirTran announced its plan to leave, the Charleston County Aviation Authority created the first- ever local incentives package for new or expanded flight services. The deal includes temporarily waiving landing fees, which run about $3,500 per year for a regional jet with one flight a day. It also allows for as much as $10,000 in marketing assistance and as much as $150,000 in startup costs -- including computer equipment, kiosks and terminal improvements -- for new carriers.
Stevens would not discuss any specific negotiations in the works, but said, "We're talking to all the airlines all the time."
Edwards of Greenville-Spartanburg International said his agency also offers local incentives but that operators can only provide so much. Airlines want to reduce the risk of starting or expanding services.
Edwards said Independence Air lowered prices by about $100 per ticket while it served his airport. He estimates that a low-cost carrier could have as much as an $80 million impact in his area, the same estimated annual impact of AirTran on Charleston.
Rep. Jim Merrill, a Daniel Island Republican and co-sponsor of the incentives bill, said his involvement developed out of discussions with Charleston tourism leaders who pleaded the case for the funding. But some lawmakers fear the House bill would help Greenville-Spartanburg over other parts of the state.
"It's kind of sad that it's devolved somewhat into a regional issue," Merrill said. "I think it's important for all the areas to try to attract airlines. What we want more than anything is to try to be a hub for an airline."
Merrill said a provision in the budget asking for the same funding works as a safety net in case the bill doesn't pass.
"Losing ground on attracting airlines has a ripple effect on restaurants, hotels, tourism, the new cruises lines (serving Charleston) -- everything," Merrill said.