By Paul Gable
General aviation at the Conway Airport is another area in which the Horry County Department of Airports has missed the boat.
The county’s three general aviation airports, Conway, North Myrtle Beach and Loris, were a topic of specific discussion at Horry County Council’s budget retreat last spring because of the continuing deficit they generate.
Conway airport is an interesting study in what is wrong with general aviation in Horry County.
The North American Institute of Aviation relocated from Hammonton, NJ to Conway in 1978 in the same time period that Horry County government was instituting the recently passed home rule for county government.
For the next 20 years, Horry County government didn’t have worries about the Conway airport as the school thrived through close connections with the Scandinavian countries of Europe. The school paid rent to the county for the facilities it used and also was the Fixed Base Operator for Conway airport, although sources say the FBO was run to basically support the school.
In the late 1990’s NAIA enrollment began to decline because of a saturation point being reached in the number of Scandinavian pilots and new European Union laws that did not automatically accept U.S. Federal Aviation Administration certification of the pilots that trained here.
It was at this time that local Conway businessman Benjamin Creel purchased the school from its original owners.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the school lost its visas for the small number of pilots that still came from Europe to study.
Shortly thereafter, a fire at the terminal building, which housed the school facilities, further hurt the operations of NAIA.
Horry County decided to build a brand new terminal building complete with classroom facilities and office space for NAIA.
But, NAIA was in a downward spiral from which it never recovered. The school facilities have been basically empty since the new terminal opened.
The school could have probably done considerably more to help itself by expanding FBO operations to solicit outside work, but it didn’t.
In 2008, the county foreclosed on the school for non-payment of rent. NAIA filed for bankruptcy in early 2009.
Nearly seven years later, Conway airport, with its beautiful, but largely empty terminal building remains a drain on county airport funds.
Better decisions on the part of Horry County Department of Airports staff and NAIA management could have prevented this. It was obvious, before the fire, that NAIA was not going to return to what it was prior to the late 1990’s.
More realistic construction of the new terminal building and a more realistic business plan for what remained of NAIA could have cut the losses the county is now experiencing at Conway airport.
But, it was not to be.
In the words of one Horry County Council member, “You can go to Conway airport and watch all the planes that don’t fly in there.”