Published May 11, 2010
After weeks of speculation and political wrangling over incentives across South Carolina, Southwest Airlines announced today that it intends to fly out of Charleston International Airport and Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport starting next year.
At a news conference called for noon and then pushed to 2 p.m., airport officials were expected to announce that five months after discount air carrier AirTran departed Charleston for the last time, it has a new low-cost carrier.
Southwest posted a news release on its website at 2 p.m. confirming the decision.
"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.
Speculation over Southwest coming to Greenville-Spartanburg and Charleston but not Columbia sparked a political feud in the Statehouse over millions of dollars in incentives for any air carrier.
State lawmakers have been saying for weeks that Southwest was interested in starting service from Charleston and Greenville-Spartanburg.
Southwest officials even visited Columbia to support the bill that would provide up to $15 million in incentives for airlines. Because they were feeling overlooked by Southwest, Midlands lawmakers held up passage of the bill. As the legislative session nears an end, a compromise appeared to be in the works.
“The bottom line is that lack of a low-cost airline has really put our community at a competitive disadvantage for business development, business expansion and tourism,” said Helen Hill, executive director of the Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The bill includes $15 million borrowed from the S.C. Insurance Reserve Fund that airlines could use as a backstop if they lost money. The legislation would require a 25% local match.
Midlands leaders believed the bill was set up to help bring Southwest Airlines to airports in Charleston and Greenville-Spartanburg but not the Columbia Metropolitan Airport and worked to block it.
To fund a local incentive plan, Hill proposed a 5% fee on rental cars at a Charleston County committee meeting late last month. The fee would generate about $1.5 million per year, far short of state incentives.
The local incentive could work as a match under the proposed statewide air service incentive fund.
But even if the statewide bill doesn’t pass, Hill said the money generated by the rental car fee would still be available to carriers considering Charleston.
It’s unclear what, if any, effect today’s announcement might have on a state compromise on airline incentives.
Founded in 1971 and based in Dallas, Southwest Airlines operates more than 3,200 flights a day, serving 68 cities in 35 states.
According to its website, Southwest operates 537 Boeing 737 jets.
Southwest said it was the largest U.S. carrier as of Sept. 30, based on domestic passengers carried. The company had total operating revenue of $10.4 billion in 2009 and net income of $99 million.