Southwest strikes deal with Charleston, Greenville

By Hatzel Vela  bio | email | Twitter

NORTH CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Low-cost airline Southwest is moving into Charleston and Greenville next year.

The first flight won't take off until March 2011, but in six months people will be able to purchase tickets, said a company spokesman.

The Dallas-based company said it would spend the next few months researching which cities should be part of its initial offering.

"This is a wonderful day for the citizens of the Charleston area," said Teddie Pryor, Sr., chairman of Charleston County Council. "Having a low-cost carrier is a quality of life issue, and it will benefit our residents every bit as much as it does the business community."

The addition of Southwest is a "major step forward for our entire region" according to David Jennings, chairman of the Charleston County Aviation Authority. "Gaining service from an airline with the reputation and track record of Southwest speaks volumes about the current and future potential of the Charleston market," said Jennings. "Charleston fits well both geographically and strategically into Southwest's future. It fills a big void in their southern network, which is currently empty from Raleigh to Jacksonville."

Southwest posted a news release on its website at 2 p.m. Tuesday confirming the decision, which was announced at Charleston International Airport in North Charleston.

"We look forward to serving the Palmetto State with Southwest Airlines' unique brand of genuine hospitality, great value, a robust and reliable flight network, and our terrific employees who deliver excellent customer service," said Dave Ridley, Southwest's senior vice president of marketing and revenue management.

Southwest's arrival is heralded as a boon to the local tourism economy according to Helen Hill, Executive Director of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

State Senator Glenn McConnell, who has been close to the negotiations, said Southwest thinks Charleston is a solid, long term market because of tourism and business, like the arrival Boeing and the likely travel business it will create.

Boeing also manufactures Southwest planes. According to its website, Southwest operates 537 Boeing 737 jets.

The airline also has ties to Carnival Cruise Lines, which recently added Bermuda as a new destination from Charleston.

Late Monday night, a Southwest official called Hill while she was at the grocery store to inform her of the company's decision.

"We were a little bit apprehensive because late at night you don't get a call about anything good," Hill said.

The Charleston Convention and Visitor's Bureau along with other agencies tried to lure Southwest to Charleston in 2006.

"They told us very nicely it was not the right time for Charleston, SC. We went back about 18 months ago and made another presentation and then they said they would consider us," Hill said.

Since then, Southwest officials have visited Charleston three times.

"The number one challenge we face in attracting meetings and conventions to the Charleston area has been the lack of flights and the high cost of airfare," said Hill.  "Having Southwest enter our market will not only have a moderating effect on airfares across the board, it will open up more seats to more places, which benefits everyone."

Any time Southwest starts to fly into a new destination, travel experts call it the 'Southwest Effect' because other airlines drop airfare prices so they can compete with Southwest and air travel takes off.

Senator Lindsey Graham called the announcement good news for "the state, the economy and the traveling public."

Less than two weeks ago, the Charleston County Council approved a tax increase on rental cars that paved much of the way for the deal. At that hearing, Councilman Elliott Summey said the county was in negotiations with two low-cost airlines.

Pryor said Tuesday the council would suspend readings of the rental car tax increase for an undetermined amount of time. This announcement follows the reports that Southwest informed the council they would not seek extensive funding from the region to move into the airport.

Gov. Sanford welcomed the air carrier to the state, saying, "For the practical benefits of Southwest's expansion, including new jobs and greater opportunities for all South Carolinians, I'd once again commend Southwest and join with people across the Palmetto State in enthusiastically welcoming this new airline to the South Carolina skies."

Southwest is estimated to bring 200,000 additional passengers to the Charleston area annually, which Hill forecasts as a positive influence on the area's $2.8 billion tourism industry.

Southwest Airlines operates more than 3,200 flights a day, serving 68 cities in 35 states. A Southwest spokesman told Live 5 News once they enter a market and commit, they don't pull out.

In the company's 39-year history, they have only left five airports.

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