Southwest set to take off from Charleston in 2011

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley (left) and Charleston County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor (right) applaud after Charleston County Aviation Authority Chairman David Jennings announced that Southwest will start serving Charleston and Greenville in 2011.

TONY GUTIERREZ

Flying out of the Lowcountry is about to get much cheaper.

Tourism officials estimate that Southwest Airlines, which announced Tuesday it would launch service here within a year, will save Charleston International Airport travelers $180 million a year in fares.

The discount carrier will potentially bring 200,000 new passengers through the local airport annually, and prices from competing carriers likely will plummet.

Following weeks of debate over proposed cash incentives to lure a low-cost airline, the Dallas-based company decided to start flying to both Charleston International and Greenville-Spartanburg International airports without any significant financial cushion.

Southwest and local aviation and tourism officials will spend the next four or five months studying which cities to connect with the Palmetto State for flights in 2011.

Charleston's cry for cheaper flights recently reached fever pitch. AirTran Airways pulled out in December, and passengers watched as tickets to New York, for example, soared from a little more than $200 round-trip without a required overnight stay to nearly $800.

Southwest's average one-way fare totals less than $115, as of Dec. 31, and the average trip extends nearly 900 miles, according to company data. Southwest also allows passengers to check two bags for free.

Business leaders gathered in the airport's atrium Tuesday afternoon, wearing "Let's Fly!" stickers in the Southwest brand's telltale purple and red.

Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Helen Hill donned a purple skirt suit with a red undershirt.

A Southwest executive vice president had called her cell phone as she shopped for snacks for her son at 9:30 p.m. Monday. She figured the call, at such an odd hour, couldn't be good news until he told her, "We're going to come without incentives."

Southwest officials said in a prepared statement that "service will not be dependent upon pending legislation to provide air service subsidies."

State Sen. Larry Grooms, a Bonneau Republican who worked with business leaders to attract the airline, lauded the air service expansion as "a flat-out home run" in a recent string of statewide economic development successes, including landing the Boeing Co. factory in Charleston.

"This is just another chapter in the economic development of the Lowcountry and also all of South Carolina," Grooms said. "Having a company like Southwest sends a signal that the economy is strong and growing."

House Speaker Bobby Harrell, a Charleston Republican who worked with Southwest from its early interest in the state, said the company sees Charleston as primarily a tourist draw and Greenville- Spartanburg as a business market, even though the two communities initially considered each other competitors.

"Charleston and Greenville were negotiating with Southwest independent of each other," Harrell said. "When both communities realized it, they teamed up, because we are stronger when we work together."

Both airports felt the sting of losing discount airlines. Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport, more than four years later, still suffers from Independence Air's collapse in 2006. AirTran, upon leaving Charleston, told local officials it needed more business travelers to succeed here.

Consultant Joel Antolini, senior vice president of Virginia-based Seabury Airline Planning Group, began working with Charleston tourism officials to court Southwest in 2006. He said the airline should survive and thrive where AirTran didn't because its direct flights will go farther than AirTran's Atlanta hub.

"Charleston was simply physically too close to Atlanta," Antolini said. "Two things happened with that. One is, because it's relatively close, you get more people driving between Charleston and Atlanta than the carriers want. The other part is the way airlines tend to allocate revenue, it very much penalizes flights of short distances."

Local aviation attorney Mark Fava said local passengers should expect lower ticket prices from major carriers, too, as soon as Southwest enters the local market.

"They'll match the fares, which is what they did with AirTran, and sometimes they'll offer double miles on selected routes" for customer loyalty programs, Fava said.

Charleston County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor, also a member of the Charleston County Aviation Authority board, described the Southwest announcement as a quality-of-life boost in a state where "everybody has a story about traveling to another city for low-cost air service.

"It provides affordability," Pryor said. "And, just as important, it provides accessibility."

Southwest's decision came as state lawmakers planned to take up a bill stalled in the Senate that would establish the S.C. Air Services Incentive and Development Fund. The proposed bill would allow the Aeronautics Commission to borrow up to $15 million from the Insurance Reserve Fund to lure low-cost carriers.

Charleston County Council also expected to hold a public hearing next week on a 5 percent fee on car rentals aimed at raising $1.5 million yearly for incentives designed for the same purpose.

Southwest's announcement effectively puts both proposals aside for now.

The carrier will receive the Charleston County Aviation Authority's startup package, according to authority Chairman David Jennings. 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 launch costs, including computer equipment, kiosks and terminal improvements.

"I still think incentives are part of the landscape," Jennings said. "But apart from the airport incentives, they are not part of the landscape with Southwest."