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Myrtle Beach airport hired powerful Charleston aviation consultant who helped nab Southwest

MYRTLE BEACH — The Myrtle Beach International Airport hired Sue Stevens, former executive director of Charleston International, as a consultant in 2020 and she played a "crucial role" in Southwest Airlines starting its flights out of MYR.

And Karen Riordan, president and CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, said Southwest's interest has triggered other airlines, like MYR's largest carrier Spirit, to take notice and want to make larger splashes of their own.

"With the advent of Southwest in the market now, all of our other partners are also very, very interested in renewing their relationships ... with the city," Riordan said at a recent Myrtle Beach City Council meeting.

Sue Stevens, 2021

Sue Stevens, 2021

Sue Stevens

Stevens was hired to fill the void left by Kirk Lovell's January 2020 departure. Lovell was the Director of Air Service and Business Development and left the airport for the private sector.

Since February 2020, Stevens has made $71,304.42 as the airport's consultant.

With more than 30 years of experience, Stevens touts her knowledge of air service development and familiarity with the South Carolina coast positioned her well to assist the airport team with landing Southwest at MYR.

"That said, the MYR team has worked long and hard to position the airport to achieve its current success," Stevens said. "Community support, first-class airport facilities, proven markets and strong leadership were all factors in the Southwest decision to serve MYR."

Stevens was officially hired to assist airport staff with "cultivating and maintaining strong working relationships with airline route planners, airport peers, airport tenants, as well as local business and tourism organizations," according to the airport.

Ryan Betcher, spokesperson for the airport, said it was important the air service development consultant that was hired had a strong working knowledge of the aviation industry and was able to work closely with airport staff to develop and present detailed proposals to airline planning teams.

Betcher said Stevens works with the airport and chamber to promote the area to underserved and unserved markets.

"(Stevens) has played a crucial role in procuring MYR’s recent expanded air service options, including the decision by Southwest Airlines to begin service," Ryan said.

Previously, Stevens worked for the Charleston County Aviation Authority for 26 years. She served as director for the Charleston International Airport for less than seven years before resigning her $211,140-a-year job abruptly in 2013 amid accusations she made that she was being bullied by some members of the airport’s board. Stevens sued the airport board in a gender-discrimination complaint in 2013, which resulted in a $270,000 settlement paid to Stevens in 2014.

Within days of Stevens’ resignation, the board decided to offer the vacant position to State Sen. Paul Campbell.

As the director, she was also responsible for operations at Charleston Executive Airport on Johns Island and Mount Pleasant Regional Airport.

She led Charleston International to unprecedented growth, luring airlines like Southwest and JetBlue under her watch. She was also present when Boeing decided to bring its 6,000-worker production facility on-site.

Stevens said the aviation industry is a relatively small and tight-knit community.

"Over the past 30 plus years, I have established many relationships in all facets of the industry," she said, adding that this background and experience helped her to identify and understand emerging trends and changes, "which has been very important during the COVID-19 crisis.

"In 2020-2021, MYR has experienced an accelerated recovery from the impact of COVID, added new air service to numerous destinations and welcomed the arrival of Southwest Airlines," Stevens said. "In the future, I plan to build on the current foundation to expand MYR to a year-round destination with non-stop destinations and connectivity to the domestic and international air transportation network."

Stevens said she and the airport continue to meet with numerous airlines, both existing and new, to find ways to enhance and expand air service opportunities, however she could not specify any particular new airline.

"The Myrtle Beach region is one of the fastest-growing areas in the country and is becoming a year-round destination for travelers," Stevens said. "Myrtle Beach continues to rank nationally as a top destination for travel in the U.S. with over 20.6 million visitors in 2019."

Betcher has said for about six months now that MYR’s recovery consistently outpaces the national average.

"Going forward, demand for air travel to and from the Grand Strand is high and the airport team is optimistic that the upcoming summer season will bring a record number of passengers traveling through MYR," he said.

Alex Brizee contributed to this report.

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