Carrier is winning customers back to regional airport
By Trevor Anderson
Published: Sunday, March 4, 2012 at 3:15 a.m.
Nearly a year has passed since the big red-and-blue jets of Southwest Airlines touched down at Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport.
The Dallas-based low-cost carrier launched its service from GSP on March 13, 2011.
But it was just 11 months before that when local business leaders and airport officials were fearful for the airport’s future. Airline travel out of the regional airport was nose-diving and its ticket prices had skyrocketed to rank among the highest in the country.
About 60 percent of its customers were jumping ship for airports in Atlanta or Charlotte, N.C. Officials attributed those losses to a lack of direct flights, airlines cutting back routes and businesses and customers bargain shopping for lower fares.
With the first anniversary of Southwest’s arrival drawing near, officials said they are in awe of the transformative impact the airline is having on the airport business and Upstate air travel. Southwest praised its decision to come to the Palmetto State and said its plans are reaching fruition.
“It was absolutely (a game-changer),” said Dave Edwards, president and CEO of GSP. “It’s a testament to the community, our customers and the company. We proved again that if fares are right and we have competitive service, we can soar.”
In May 2010, Southwest announced its decision to add service in the Palmetto State from GSP and Charleston International airports.
Five months later, the airline laid out its plans for the regional airport in dramatic fashion. Business leaders from across the region attended a ceremony at the airport where they watched as two huge bay doors rolled open to reveal one of the airlines’ Boeing 737s sitting on the tarmac.
Lenny Kravitz’s hit song “Fly Away” blared over the sound system as the crowd, which included part of Clemson University’s pep band and cheerleading squad, stood and gave a roaring ovation.
Southwest officials emerged from the plane and walked to a stage where they promised to “liberate the Upstate from the tyranny of high fares and poor air service.”
That promise apparently struck a chord with customers.
Passenger traffic at GSP increased more than 38 percent in 2011 to 1,755,509 customers, compared to 1,268,202 customers in 2010.
Edwards referenced a phenomenon called the “Southwest Effect,” which is a term that has become synonymous with the airline’s impact on new markets it enters. It refers to the lowering of fares, the increase in flights and destinations, as well as making the market more attractive for tourism and economic development.
The regional airport has reaped the benefit of that effect.
Per Southwest’s arrival, the airport reported its fares fell by 14 percent in 2011, the largest decrease in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Travel Statistics.
GSP received a 2011 Annie award, which is a special airline industry recognition, for being the fastest-growing small airport in the country.
The airport finalized plans for a $102 million renovation project for its 50-year-old main terminal building. The project is expected to start later this year and take up to four years and the airport will remain open throughout renovations.
“We have some functional inefficiencies that we need to address,” Edwards said. “This will lay the groundwork for us to continue to accommodate more passengers well into the 21st century.”
On Feb. 23, the airport received the Governor’s Cup at the S.C. Governor’s Conference on Tourism and Travel. The award is given each year in honor of a tourism partner whose event or organization had a significant impact on the economy and quality of life for its community, as well as the state.
“It feels wonderful,” Edwards said. “What we’ve really seen is a stabilization of air fares here. It has created a rising tide that has floated all boats, not just Southwest.”
Southwest operates seven daily nonstop flights out of GSP to five destinations, including two to Baltimore/Washington International, two to Chicago Midway International, one to Nashville, one to Houston Hobby and one to Orlando.
The airline provides three daily one-stop flights to Boston Logan International Airport, Denver International Airport and McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. The midpoint airports for the one-stop flights are Baltimore for the Boston flight, Nashville for the Denver flight and Chicago for the Las Vegas flight.
A Southwest official said the company is pleased with its decision to come to GSP.
“For years, customers requested that Southwest bring our low fares, our Bags Fly Free policy and our legendary service to South Carolina,” said Southwest spokeswoman Laurel Moffat. “We listened, and we couldn’t be more excited about the response from the Upstate community to choose Southwest as their hometown carrier.”
Moffat said Southwest enplaned more than 200,000 passengers at GSP since its opening last March. That is equal to nearly a quarter of the total number of passengers enplaned at the airport in 2011.
“We are pleased with the bookings coming in for GSP since we began service on March 13,” she said. “People from the Upstate are booking trips to each of our five nonstop destinations, but also all across the country to places like Phoenix, Denver, Boston, and Las Vegas. … We are pleased with the performance of one of our newest cities on the Southwest route map.”
Chris Jennings, executive director for the Spartanburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, said Southwest has had a good impact locally so far and hopes the airline will continue to pave the way to new markets nationwide.
“Southwest came in and everyone followed them,” Jennings said. “For tourism, Spartanburg and Greenville really are not fly-in destinations yet. Most of the increases are probably due to business travel. But people can now look at us as a destination. That’s only going to help us going forward.”
Jennings said the CVB will hopefully begin to market the county to other cities reachable by plane and served by Southwest.
He said a great step forward for GSP would be adding a direct flight to Canada, which is the second largest consumer of South Carolina exports, according to a study released Tuesday by the state Department of Commerce.
David Cordeau, president and CEO of the Spartanburg Area Chamber of Commerce and member of the Upstate Air Service Task Force, said Southwest has exceeded his expectations.
“Before we got them to say yes, we were telling people sometimes nervously about what happens when Southwest comes to town,” he said. “Fares go down, ridership goes up. Evidently, that has happened.”
Cordeau thanked Edwards for the leadership he provided in courting and capturing Southwest. He also praised the late textile magnate and philanthropist Roger Milliken, the namesake of GSP’s air field, who worked on the deal and attended the announcement ceremony before he passed away two months later at the age of 95.
“Roger’s vision for what this airline could do for the Upstate is now fulfilled,” Cordeau said.
Edwards said the regional airport plans to do another leakage study to determine the amount of customers it has been able to win back.
He said a thriving airport is a vital piece of the puzzle that a community needs to retain business, create new jobs and improve the quality of life for its residents.
Edwards said GSP’s economic impact on the community in 2010 was an estimated $400 million. He expects the impact for 2011 to be above that level.
“I don’t think there’s any question,” Edwards said. “If you look around the country, good air service in a community is key to economic development. Here in the Upstate, we’re very focused on manufacturing and headquarters facilities. If you want to recruit those, you need to make sure you have good air service, as people travel for business and leisure.”
Copyright © 2012 GoUpstate.com
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