June 20, 2008

Airport’s Size Should Double, Say Consultants

By Mike Cherney, The Sun News, Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Jun. 20--Myrtle Beach International Airport will need 15 gates and a facility twice the size of the current passenger terminal to keep up with demand through 2025, consultants hired by Horry County to expand the terminal said Thursday.

The 155,000-square-foot terminal has seven gates, although passengers must walk to their planes at the seventh gate. The facility should be expanded to 335,000 square feet in 2025, the consultants said.

With a size estimate, M.B. Kahn Construction Co., the firm hired by the county to manage the project, can now develop conceptual designs for the expansion. Several designs should be ready by September, and a preferred design should be selected by November.

The county could add on to the terminal or build a new terminal beside it. The firm is working on cost estimates for bringing the building up to code and will eventually have an estimate for the entire expansion project.

Bob Anderson, a principal with The LPA Group, which is also working on the project, said the expansion could be done in phases and it would be up to the county -- and the community -- to decide how much to build.

The airport needs to accommodate passengers during the peak summer months. The busiest month, July, has 153 percent more passengers than the slowest month, January, he said. In Charleston, it's 63 percent.

Bob Kemp, the county's airport director, said he agreed with the size estimates for the new expansion.

"We have to recognize what we need," he said. "How to get there, that's what's coming up in the coming months."

The size estimate was done using passenger forecasts from the Federal Aviation Administration that were released in December. The consultants recommended 10 gates by 2012, 12 by 2017 and 14 by 2022.

In 2007, there were 844,000 outgoing passengers. The FAA forecasts 871,000 by 2012 and 1.37 million by 2025.

But Doug Decker, an engineer who lives in Pawleys Island and has worked on airport projects, questioned whether it was appropriate to use the FAA forecasts since they were completed before the spike in fuel costs and the ensuing financial turmoil in the airline industry.

Anderson said he was sticking to his estimate.

The number of passengers at the airport this year is slightly down but holding steady through May, and Anderson noted that passenger numbers at Myrtle Beach have rebounded following past declines, such as after Sept. 11.

As gas prices rise, airlines could ditch routes with smaller regional jets in favor of ones with bigger planes because more money is made per passenger with larger jets, he said. In Myrtle Beach, regional jets accounted for 40 percent of departures during the week and 57 percent on Sunday during July 2007.

Anderson also noted that most of the regional jets flying out of Myrtle Beach are on the larger side and may be less likely to be cut by the airlines.

Regardless of what is built at the airport, the airlines decide whether they want to fly to Myrtle Beach, Anderson said. M.B Kahn is seeking the airlines' input on the project.

"You can create an environment that encourages them to come here," Anderson said. "In this current environment, revenue is the magic that really makes [that] happen."

Contact MIKE CHERNEY at 444-1765.


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