CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After passing under a ceremonial archway of water pumped skyward by water cannons on a pair of West Virginia Air National Guard fire trucks, a Spirit Airlines Airbus A-319 rolled to its gate at Charleston's Yeager Airport on Thursday to board passengers bound for Fort Lauderdale.
Inside the terminal building, 145 passengers preparing to board the low-cost carrier's sold-out inaugural flight to Florida munched complimentary chicken wings, sipped wine and soda, and listened to welcoming remarks by acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and other officials.
"It's a great day for West Virginia," said Tomblin. "To have another low-cost carrier come to our state is a plus for all of us. It's an opportunity for us to expand business opportunities into a new area, and bring more tourism to West Virginia."
While low fares and nonstop service were cited by many of the passengers as their reasons for booking flights with Spirit, Nancy Wolfe of Cross Lanes had an even more compelling reason for traveling to Fort Lauderdale on Thursday.
"It's my birthday," she said. "when I heard that Spirit was making its first flight to Fort Lauderdale on March 3, I thought, 'why not go?' If I have to turn 60, I might as well do it in Florida."
Wolfe and her husband, John, said that in addition to low fares, they appreciated having a nonstop option to south Florida.
"Not having to worry about making a connection in Atlanta is a plus," said Nancy Wolfe. "We'll be in Fort Lauderdale in two and a half hours, without having to change planes."
The Wolfes were traveling to Florida with Larry and Barbara Harris of Hurricane, who own a vacation home in the Florida Keys.
"We've been flying on average once a month to Florida from Huntington for the past two years," said Larry Harris. While the low-cost, non-stop service from Huntington on Allegiant Airlines has been good, Harris said, "now I won't have to drive an hour each way to catch the plane."
While the Harrises said they were paying about $122 each for their round-trip Spirit flights on Thursday, "the flights we've booked with them for April are $34 round-trip," Larry Harris said.
Misty Pinson, director of corporate communications for Spirit, was among passengers aboard Thursday's flight from Fort Lauderdale.
"Yeager Airport is an excellent location for us to use in providing easy access to the Fort Lauderdale area for people in the Charleston region," she said. "We also hope to bring a lot of people from south Florida here to let them see what West Virginia has to offer."
"this service will create a huge economic impact for both Fort Lauderdale and Charleston," said Josh Winston of the Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"It's great to get here without having to stop in Charlotte or Atlanta," said Justin Wizard of Chloe, who was also on Spirit's premiere northbound flight. "It was an absolutely smooth, comfortable flight. It couldn't have been better. I'll be looking into using Spirit to fly to places they serve in the Caribbean and in South America."
Pinson announced that through today, Spirit was offering $27 online-booked fares to both Fort Lauderdale and Myrtle Beach, which the airline will begin serving from Charleston on May 5. She also announced that Spirit was sponsoring this year's Charleston Distance Run.
Through May 5, Spirit's flights to Fort Lauderdale depart Charleston at 6 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, and return to Yeager from Fort Lauderdale at 5:30 p.m. on the same days.
The 75-minute Charleston-Myrtle Beach flights will depart Charleston at 12:40 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, and return at 5:05 p.m. on the same days.
Spirit Airlines operates more than 150 daily flights to 44 destinations in the U.S., Latin America and Caribbean Basin. the airline uses a fleet of 35 Airbus aircraft.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelham...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.