As a Coast RTA official boasts about a great first summer the company had at Myrtle Beach International Airport, cab drivers and owners are crying foul claiming the government-funded transit company violates the airport's no-soliciting policy by having an ambassador greet passengers after they retrieve their luggage.
Coast RTA and the airport says it's simply not true.
The airport's solicitation policy reads: "Soliciting of contributions, funds or donations for any purpose is prohibited on airport property. Verbal solicitation of customers for any business purpose is not permitted on airport property. Commercial transportation companies shall be allowed to utilize small hand held signs displaying the name of the group or individual they are on airport property to pick up provided that the hand held signs comply with all regulations/requirements established by the director."
Coast RTA and airport officials admit the transit has an ambassador in the terminal, who is located in the "Visitor Information" booth run by the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.
"Yes, RTA has an ambassador in the terminal building," said Kirk Lovell, spokesman for the airport. "The RTA ambassador has been on site, daily, at the airport, since the dedicated bus route commenced service."
Coast RTA has been providing its 747 North and 747 South routes since June, providing a direct shuttle to hotels and businesses along Ocean Boulevard and the Myrtle Beach Sheraton Convention Center. The cost is $7 one way and $10 round trip.
"The purpose of the RTA ambassador is to answer customer questions about public transportation, dedicated stops along each route, bus arrival times and most importantly assist people find the bus," Lovell said.
Asked why the Coast RTA was able to solicit riders and not cab drivers, Lovell said, "RTA staff are acting as an ambassador, they are not permitted to approach people about buying tickets but allowed to answer questions when approached."
Myers Rollins, general manager of the transit, called the first year's 4,100 customers so far "fantastic," noting the transit targeted an average of 30 riders per day and actually reached about 42 riders per day. He said about 85 percent of those riders elected a roundtrip ticket, securing those passengers for their trip back to the airport. The solicitation claim, however, he debunked.
"It's not true," Rollins said. "We have talked to our ambassador, airport officials and customers, and there is no one who supports this theory that we're soliciting."
He said if the cab drivers' claims of solicitation were true, which he said are not, the bus serves merely 27 hotels of the nearly 500 hotels along the Grand Strand.
"We wouldn't be penetrating enough of their market share to make that big of a difference," he said.
Rollins said part of his selling point to the County Council to get the routes at the airport was that Myrtle Beach was the only airport in a top 10 list of vacation destinations who did not have shuttle service. As the project rolled out, and in lieu of proper signage, Rollins suggested the ambassador be located at the chamber booth "to make sure there was not a disconnect between them going to the chamber of commerce booth and getting to a bus."
"I just think that there's enough work for everybody," he said. "We're certainly not there to generate a profit. We're there to provide a service."
The agency acquired the two buses used for the airport route with grants for $350,000 each, Rollins has said. This is Myrtle Beach's first fixed-route airport service, Rollins said.
Owners and drivers of the 95 cabs permitted to line up at the airport pay $130 per month to the airport for their permits, which adds up to more than $148,000 the airport receives from cabs in fees. If a passenger who called ahead has a delayed flight, cab drivers are sent to a secondary lot where they are charged an additional $7. The driver's rates are controlled by city ordinance, so sometimes the drivers must forfeit business because it usually has to pass the surcharge on to the passenger.