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Nine airlines serve Charleston International Airport, including Southwest and JetBlue, which began service during the past decade to help bring more competition to the Charleston market and help lower airfares. File/Staff

More airlines flying to more destinations — with some competing for the same markets — brought airfares down in 2018 to the lowest rate in nearly 25 years at Charleston International Airport.

Air travelers leaving the Lowcountry paid nearly $100 less last year for an average round-trip ticket than they did in 2000, the year with the highest price on record by the U.S. Department of Transportation for flights from Charleston's airport.

Last year, the average airfare stood at $357 for a round-trip ticket from the state's busiest terminal. At the start of the millennium, the price came in at $454.

And while last year's lower rates were welcome news, they came in just a bit higher than the best year on record. In 1996, the average price landed at $350.

That rate matches the price for the fourth quarter of 2018 for Charleston's airfares. Lower fuel prices played a part as well.

And while Charleston saw average fares fall to the best rate in two decades during the last three months of last year, they weren't the lowest in South Carolina.

Grand fares

Myrtle Beach, with its fleet of discount and legacy carriers ferrying families to its sandy beaches on 50 nonstop, mainly seasonal flights, recorded an average rate of $304 per round-trip ticket.

"We have more ultra low-cost carriers than anybody else in the state," said Myrtle Beach airport spokesman Kirk Lovell. 

They include Allegiant, Frontier, Spirit and Sun Country.

"They help drive our average fares below average," Lovell said. "Myrtle Beach has had the lowest average fares in the state for more than a decade, and it's helped to boost our passenger levels."

Last year, Myrtle Beach landed a spot as the second busiest airport in the state with 2.5 million passengers. Charleston ranked first with 4.47 million.

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More competition is leading to lower fares and more passengers at Charleston International Airport. Here, they wait to go through the Transportation Security Administration checkpoint on a busy travel day in 2018, when Charleston recorded the lowest fares in nearly 25 years. File/Warren L. Wise/Staff

The other two metropolitan airports in the Palmetto State showed average rates of more than $400 each during the final quarter of 2018. Greenville-Spartanburg came in at $401 while Columbia reported the state's highest rate of $459.

Nearby Savannah, which Charleston often uses for comparison, reported average fares at the end of 2018 at $370.

The national average for 2018 was $350, down 1.8 percent from 2017 and 16 percent less than in 2014.

Competition takes off

The Charleston region's chief tourism official attributed less expensive fares out of the Lowcountry to more competition than 20 years ago, with a healthy mix of routes from legacy carriers such as Delta, American and United and low-cost airlines recruited to serve Charleston over the past decade.

"Some of them are now competing for the same markets," said Helen Hill, CEO of Explore Charleston and a board member of the Charleston County Aviation Authority. "That's good for people flying in and out of Charleston, and it helps bring down ticket prices."

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Helen Hill, a Charleston tourism industry leader who is also a member of the Charleston County Aviation Authority board, touts airline growth at Charleston International Airport. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

She pointed to Delta adding a route to Boston after JetBlue launched service to Beantown and three airlines serving Denver where five years ago Charleston had no uninterrupted service to the Mile High City.

"Our efforts are focused on recruitment and retention of low-cost carriers, with retention being the most important," she said. "We continue to support them with marketing efforts, which really helps."

The addition of several low-cost airlines to the Charleston market — including Southwest, JetBlue, Frontier and Allegiant — "has opened the door for us to have a relationship with the legacy carriers," Hill said.

"If we didn't have the low-cost carriers, the larger airlines would be less interested in talking to us because they wouldn't have the competition," Hill said. "The diversification of product is key."

Reg Blynn moved to Charleston from Boston 18 years ago and remembers when flights out of Charleston were among some of the most expensive in the country.

Working in clinical research, the Mount Pleasant husband and father of two flies about four to six times a month all across the U.S. for business and has watched airfares drop in recent years.

“I definitely noticed them starting to decline when more airlines came to Charleston,” said Blynn, 41. “I have noticed fares go down significantly. On average, it’s about $100 a ticket less now. I’ve never seen them this low, and the airport is beautiful now. I remember when it wasn't so nice."

New routes to low rates

Airport CEO Paul Campbell said the Aviation Authority is constantly looking for ways to keep rates competitive and as affordable as possible.

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Charleston County Aviation Authority CEO Paul Campbell said the agency is constantly looking for ways to keep fares low in Charleston, including recruiting new low-cost carriers such as Denver-based Frontier Airlines, which launched service in 2018 from the state's busiest airport. File/Staff

"We do everything we can at the airport to make sure the availability of travel is spread out," Campbell said. "We are always looking at other airlines to come in, and by using a variety of airlines we can keep the average cost to flyers as close to the minimum as we possibly can."

Charleston recently landed twice-weekly nonstop flights to London on British Airways, and the airport continues to break passenger records, with more than 5 million ticket holders expected this year.

Charleston airport's biggest challenge, Hill said, is that it's viewed as a seasonal market by many airlines.

"Like Myrtle Beach, but not as dramatic, we still take a big dip down after the holidays," she said.

Hill said she believes airlines can be convinced to extend service into the cold-weather months.

"We can create a market if you let us keep the market," she said of some seasonal routes.

One other shortcoming the airport constantly hears about is the lack of a nonstop flight to California.

It's probably not in the immediate future, Hill said, but uninterrupted flights to the Golden State could materialize one day.

The most likely destinations, if routes ever develop, would be Los Angeles or San Francisco.

"We are not close right now, but we are working on it," she said.

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Reach Warren L. Wise at 843-937-5524. Follow him on Twitter @warrenlancewise.