Sunday, April 02, 2017

Who has the cheapest airfares in South Carolina? It all depends on fuel costs, competition, plane size

Charleston International may be South Carolina's busiest airport, but it's not the cheapest.

That distinction belongs to Myrtle Beach International, according to the latest available figures for round-trip tickets for the state's six largest airports from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Airline ticket prices in Charleston, Columbia, Florence, Hilton Head, Myrtle Beach and Greenville-Spartanburg tumbled during the third quarter of 2016 over the same period a year earlier, based on an analysis by The Post and Courier.

Statewide, fares fell an average 9.9 percent quarter over quarter, and the trend of paying less to fly is not only touching down in South Carolina.

Nationally, average domestic seat prices dipped about 8.8 percent to $344 in the third quarter of 2016 from the same quarter the previous year. Fares, which do not include baggage fees and other ancillary airport expenses, have now declined seven consecutive quarters since 2014, when fuel prices began to drop amid a world glut of oil.

Fueling fares

Aviation analysts and airport officials attribute the descent in fares to lower fuel costs, increased competition and a move by airlines to newer aircraft.

"There is no single dynamic driving the current drop in airline fares," said aviation analyst Michael Boyd of The Boyd Group International near Denver. "Fuel prices are part of it. Airplanes are more fuel efficient, too, and that's going to increase over the next two or three years as airlines replace older planes with newer ones."

He called fuel prices "stable, not low," though they are lower than they were three years ago.

In Charleston, for instance, Boyd cited an influx of additional air service as one of the contributing factors to lower fares.

Since 2014, not only have new routes been added to the heavily populated Northeast and to South Florida from Charleston, but also Alaska Airlines now flies nonstop between the Lowcountry and its home base in Seattle, a nod to the region's transcontinental connection to Boeing Co., which assembles wide-body jets in North Charleston and the Pacific Northwest.  

As for fares, Charleston International, in the booming three-county coastal port region of airplane and auto manufacturers, landed at No. 2 in the state. The average price to fly round-trip from the nation's 75th largest airport — about $359 — dipped nearly $25 quarter over quarter, down about 6.5 percent.

Charleston connects nonstop with 23 airports in 17 cities, all through national airlines such as Alaska, American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest and United. It expects to shepherd 4 million arriving and departing passengers through its terminal this year, doubling the number of ticket holders since 2010.

For the best prices, look to the Palmetto State's northeast coast.

The average domestic fare for the Grand Strand airport, the nation's 110th largest based on passenger counts, dipped to about $201, dropping nearly $15, or 6.9 percent, from the third quarter of 2015 to the same period last year.

Myrtle Beach offers nonstop flights to about three dozen markets, many through mid-size providers such as Allegiant, Porter and Spirit along with larger mainline carriers American, Delta and United. Its destinations include many mid- and large-size cities in the Midwest and Northeast, where many Grand Strand vacationers live.

At Columbia Metropolitan Airport, the nation's 114th busiest terminal with eight nonstop destinations and three carriers, the price dropped 6.3 percent quarter over quarter. Fares at Greenville-Spartanburg International, down 2.4 percent, and Florence Regional Airport, 9.8 percent cheaper, also reflect the year-over-year decline.

The most expensive airport to fly out of in the state sits on Hilton Head Island, though the average round-trip price plummeted by more than $121, or 22.2 percent, from the third quarter of 2015 to the same period last year to nearly $426.

Airport director Jon Rembold couldn't speculate on the cause for the steep drop in price, but Beaufort County Council Chairman Paul Sommerville said it could be the airport's lone carrier, American Eagle, dropped prices in anticipation of future competition entering the market.

Rembold said he does not know of any new carriers coming to the island.

Hilton Head Island Airport is in the process of extending its runway to 5,000 feet so larger jets can use the airport. Completion is expected by mid-2018.

In Charleston, residents welcome the lower fares for the most part.

"I think they are pretty low compared to most places," said William Price of Charleston as he waited to go through security at Charleston International with friend Jordan Townsley.

"You can go to Boston, New York or D.C. for less than $150," said Price, as the two left on a Delta flight for a weekend in the Big Apple.

Mary Pat Calvert of West Ashley agreed. Traveling to Philadelphia with her daughter, McCallum, Calvert called the prices out of Charleston "amazing." She also cited the ease of getting in and out of the airport.

Lauren Alexander of Hollywood likes the prices, too. "They are very reasonable," she said, as she and her husband, Danny, left for Boston.

But not everyone thinks rates are low enough.

Boston-bound Nicole Alexander of Ladson said, "I think they could be a little bit cheaper."

Propelling costs

In Myrtle Beach, airport director Scott Van Moppes cited a combination of factors for the lower costs to fly.

"Fuel plays such a high contributing factor, not only for pricing but for competition," he said. "We also have the most nonstop destinations of any airport in South Carolina. You would think Charleston would have the most."

With close to 2 million passengers arriving and departing a year, Myrtle Beach is among the top beach destinations in the Southeast. Many Midwest and Northeast residents have second homes in the area, Van Moppes said.

Charleston airport CEO Paul Campbell also cited the price of fuel as a main contributor to declining airfares.

"Petroleum costs have come way, way down," he said.

He also said some airlines are switching to wide-body planes for higher fuel efficiency, which also contributes to lower overall costs.

"You put more people on the plane, and they get better fuel economy per passenger mile," Campbell said.

"The fact that JetBlue and Southwest continue to grow and add destinations also helps to keep rates down," he said. "Competition always helps."

At Columbia Metropolitan, which saw about 1.2 million passengers arriving and departing last year, the main item besides lower fuel costs driving down airfares is a marketing campaign that started about five years ago to try to keep people from driving to Charlotte or elsewhere to catch a cheaper flight.

"It changed people's perceptions and booking habits," said Anthony Gilmer, air service and marketing manager for Columbia's airport. "If they find a reasonable flight, they book it, and that's kind of snowballed into five years of growth here."

With more local people using the Capital City's airport, airlines followed suit with larger aircraft and more seats.

"Fares come down when there are more seats because of supply and demand," Gilmer said.

He noted that a 50-seat jet from Delta or American has now morphed into bigger planes that offer more amenities that some Midlands air travelers might crave, such as wireless Internet and first-class seating.

"It's an all-around better passenger experience when you start moving around in a larger cabin," Gilmer said.

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