Desperate for Southwest Airlines service, Charleston reaches into your pocket

Poor Charleston International Airport.

Apparently the air service offered by American Airlines, Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and US Airways isn’t enough. Now it wants Southwest Airlines, too, and it knows just how to get it — with a new 5 percent car rental tax.

Charleston’s County Council earlier this week reportedly pressed ahead with a new a tax on rental cars that’s meant to raise incentive money to lure a low-cost airline to town, presumably Southwest, as supporters wearing “Let’s Fly” stickers looked on approvingly.

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Here’s the ordinance (PDF).

The money will be used to, “among other things, promote tourism and economic development through the provision of air service incentives, development, and advertising that facilitate additional flight options and increased competition for air travel,” according to the law.

Can you say “bad idea”?

Forgetting, for the moment, the questionable benefit to car renters of having Southwest Airlines service in Charleston — I mean, they’re renting a car, not flying — there’s the little issue of taxation without representation.

Quite simply, most of the car rental customers didn’t get to vote for the council members who passed this ordinance by an 8-1 vote. Nor will they get anything out of the increased air service, unless they use the airport and fly on Southwest. And those are two very big “ifs.”

This is only the latest bad idea from lawmakers on both the local and state level. Remember Wisconsin’s outragous car rental tax? Or Florida’s silly idea to fund Tri-Rail?

Look, I’m not opposed to taxes. They’re inevitable. But to not have a say-so in the matter, at some level, is wrong. (Even though Charleston’s goal, to bring a low-cost carrier to the airport, is a laudable idea, there has to be a better way.)

There’s also the issue of fairness, as one commenter pointed out on the Post and Courier’s site.

This is taxpayer subsidized competition being put in place that does not create a level playing field for the existing Charleston airlines.

Let the market decide who decides to fly here. If subsidies or money or funding is given to “one” airline, it should be given to them all to be fair.

It’s not over yet. Next up is a public hearing on May 20, which will leading to a final council vote on the tax. If you live in Charleston, you might want to show up. It starts at 6:30 p.m. in the Public Services Building, 4045 Bridge View Drive, North Charleston.

(Photo: hugging the coast/Flickr Creative Commons)

Update (5/11): This just crossed the wire.

Charleston, S.C. Welcomes Southwest Airlines

CHARLESTON, S.C., May 5, 2010 – Southwest Airlines announced it will begin service at both Charleston and Greenville International Airports within the next twelve months. According to a spokesperson for Southwest Airlines, the local Air Service Team’s collaborative efforts presented a compelling case for bringing low-cost air service to Charleston. Comprised of the Charleston County Aviation Authority, Charleston Regional Development Alliance, Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, the Air Service Team hosted airline officials during site visits and worked with legislators on air service incentive funding measures.

“This is a wonderful day for the citizens of the Charleston area,” says 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,” says 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.”

Speaker of the S.C. House of Representatives Bobby Harrell, who was instrumental in the statewide effort to lure low-cost air service, anticipates a positive and immediate increase in statewide economic development activity. “The lack of a low-cost carrier has been one of our biggest challenges in attracting new investment and high-quality jobs to South Carolina,” says Harrell. “Telling prospects that our state is served by Southwest will be very well received.” The economic impact of one low cost carrier in the Charleston market is estimated at $139 million annually.

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. “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,” says 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.”

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 has built its stellar reputation by providing exceptional customer service- something we in the Charleston hospitality industry appreciate!” says Hill.

Air consultant Joel Antolini of Seabury APG was contracted by the Charleston Air Service team to assess and strengthen the local market’s competitive edge. “This is the type of thing you can pull off when you’re working with a creative, energetic, ‘can-do’ community,” says Antolini. “In a refreshing and upbeat way, failing to bring Southwest to Charleston was never an option for this positive-minded group.”

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