Charleston has a bleak reputation for keeping discount airlines afloat, but business leaders and analysts say those failures reflect more upon the companies than the market, and that this time the airport will make it work.
Officials won't confirm the name on everyone's lips, but Charleston County Council Vice Chairman Elliott Summey went so far as to say that "they don't charge for certain things people take on planes." Southwest Airlines runs a successful "bags fly free" campaign while its competitors add on more a la carte charges, especially for luggage.
Charleston International Airport lost its only low-cost airline in December when AirTran Airways pulled out, citing poor sales among business travelers who typically pay more for specific travel dates. Before that, Independence Air served Charleston, but the company folded in 2006.
Charleston airports director Sue Stevens said both of those airlines flopped locally because of their own business decisions. But with this new push for more flights, she said the Charleston County Aviation Authority wants to target companies that meet local demand.
With AirTran, "that was a good product but not unique," Stevens said. "What they offered was more flights to Atlanta," when Delta Air Lines already offers 12.
The authority tried to persuade AirTran to consider a flight from Charleston to Baltimore/Washington International Airport, Stevens said.
"I personally think that would've helped to make them become more successful," she said.
Local aviation attorney Mark Fava pointed out that Southwest's model breaks from AirTran's hub-and-spoke business, which routed all Charleston passengers through Atlanta. Southwest currently doesn't serve South Carolina or Georgia.
Plus, Southwest flies only the Boeing 737, a larger plane than the regional jets that fly from Charleston to some destinations Southwest serves.
"You're paying two pilots to fly the regional jet, same as the 737," Fava said. "It just has bigger profit margins, because you've got the capacity to do it. And the business traveler would prefer the 737 over the regional jet, in terms of comfort."
Any new carriers won't land here immediately, said Helen Hill, executive director of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. Not only do those companies want the county's 5 percent fee on car rentals aimed at raising $1.5 million yearly for incentives but also a proposal to provide $15 million in state funds for that same purpose.
Those incentives would go to companies that serve markets with high demand and low supply -- New York, Washington, Chicago -- and therefore likely to survive.
"As soon as the incentives are gone, they're gone," Hill said. "That's not what we're looking for."
Officials decided against a $500,000 subsidy to keep AirTran in Charleston through January after a consultant advised the group that the annual cost would run in the $2 million range.
Hill stressed that those deal-sweeteners are only that.
"We are thought of as an international tourist destination, and our economic announcements have made us even more attractive," Hill said. "We had to have all the right stuff, and incentives are just a part of it."