Direct Air flights to Myrtle Beach grounded until May

| Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Charter airline Direct Air -- which serves Pittsburgh under the name Myrtle Beach Direct -- has suspended flights for at least two months, leaving passengers scrambling to get home and wondering whether they'll get their money back.

The airline abruptly stopped flying on Monday afternoon -- at the peak of the spring break travel season -- apparently because it couldn't pay its fuel bills. Direct Air, based in Myrtle Beach, S.C., says it will not fly again until May 15. Ticket holders were told to contact their credit card companies for refunds.

The news came just as Direct Air was about to resume seasonal nonstop service on Thursday between Pittsburgh International Airport and Myrtle Beach, a popular destination for golf enthusiasts. The airline was supposed to start flying the route Thursdays and Sundays, and possibly expand to as many as six flights a week from late May through the summer.

Last week, Direct Air announced it also was going to resume nonstop flights three times a week from Pittsburgh to Lakeland, Fla., on May 18. The airline had begun serving the route in June as an alternative to Tampa and Orlando international airports.

Direct Air flew 755 Pittsburgh passengers in January, nearly triple the 268 it served a year ago, according to Allegheny County Airport Authority data. But its 2011 volume of 536 passengers was a 49 percent drop from the 1,060 it flew in 2010.

Public charter airlines like Direct Air don't operate under the same consumer protection rules as regularly scheduled airlines like United or American. Prices and schedules, for example, are not always guaranteed. And travelers don't have as much recourse in getting refunds or rescheduling flights.

Direct Air's marketing manager Ed Warneck told The Sun News newspaper in Myrtle Beach that the airline missed a fuel payment and the supplier cut it off. That left Direct Air no choice but to ground its fleet. It is unclear how many travelers were affected by the shutdown.

In a statement on its website on Tuesday, the airline said it is evaluating strategic alternatives for its business.

Direct Air began flying in March 2007. It serves 17 cities in the Midwest, East and South -- mostly smaller markets where big airlines don't fly. But it's faced increased competition in recent years from a number of discount carriers including Spirit, Allegiant and Southwest.

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