Walking off the plane, the passengers of Southwest Airlines’ first flight to Myrtle Beach probably felt like celebrities.
There was a ribbon cutting; a host of state and local politicians to welcome them; and water cannons showered the plane arrived at its gate from Baltimore.
Lt. Gov. Pamela Evette, U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, State Rep. Case Brittain, the airport’s director, Southwest executives and a cadre of mayors and tourism officials from around the Grand Strand all showed up at Gate B3 Sunday morning.
“Welcome to what is truly a historic occasion here at Myrtle Beach,” Horry County airports director Scott Van Moppes said. “It’s the objective of every airport director to bring in a new airline, but when that new airline is one of the premier air carriers of ours or any generation, like Southwest Airlines, then that is what dreams are made of.”
Southwest Airlines coming to the Grand Strand is a pretty big deal, though, for all of those leaders, and the local economy. Until now, the nation’s largest carrier had yet to make a foray into Myrtle Beach’s young but fast growing airport. The airline will have nonstop flights to at least 10 destinations across the South and Central U.S. and connections to dozens more around the nation.
“We knew that this place was going to be booming this summer, so we wanted to get here as soon as we could,” said Adam DeCaire, Southwest’s vice president of network planning.
Southwest first expanded to South Carolina in 2010 with flights to Charleston. Its expansion to Myrtle Beach leaves Columbia as the state’s last major metropolitan area without service on Southwest Airlines.
“We were excited to welcome Southwest to South Carolina when they started flying to Charleston just a few years ago, and I mean, if you can’t come to Myrtle Beach, Charleston’s a pretty good second choice,” Rice joked during a press conference before the Baltimore flight’s arrival. “We’re delighted that they’ve recognized their mistake and added Myrtle Beach International to their portfolio.”
Shortly after arriving, the Southwest plane turned around for its flight out of Myrtle Beach — to Nashville.
Here are the destinations Southwest will be flying to (and from) in the coming weeks. New nonstop flights are shown in bold.
Currently available: Baltimore, Chicago and Nashville
May 29 (Saturdays only): Dallas and Pittsburgh
June 6: Atlanta, Columbus, Indianapolis, Kansas City and St. Louis
As interest in flying the airline to and from the Grand Strand grows, DeCaire said Southwest can and will adapt to meet the needs and wants of its customers.
“We’ve got a great loyal base of customers and they let us know what they want and we respond accordingly,” he said.
One potential point of expansion, DeCaire said, could be business travel, as companies and professionals seek to use vacation destinations for meetings and retreats in the coming months and years. In particular, he noted the Grand Strand’s golfing community as a potential attraction for business professionals.
“Obviously it’s a great place to vacation, but we know there’s some business here as well,” he said. “We’re expecting a return to people traveling for business, and what better place to travel for business than a place you can bring your golf bags for free.”
The carriers expansion has the potential to bring even more visitors to the quickly growing Grand Strand. Leaders hope that Southwest’s arrival will help revive the region’s economy, which is still limping along months after the last few coronavirus restrictions were lifted.
“We’re coming off a little bit of a crazy year,” Evette said, “especially this part of our state, businesses, tourism have been impacted hardest by COVID-19. That’s why it is such a great day to have Southwest bringing people from all over the country here to the Grand Strand.”
Southwest’s arrival is the biggest expansion of any airline in South Carolina this year. United and Frontier announced new flights to Myrtle Beach International Airport earlier this spring. Then last week, the new discount airline Breeze Airways announced that Charleston would be among its first destinations starting May 27.
“One of their slogans is ‘golf bags fly free’ and that makes the Grand Strand with her 100-plus beautiful golf courses a perfect fit,” Rice said. “I’m confident Southwest will love their new destination so much that in the coming weeks, they’ll announce the change of their name to ‘Southeast.’”