Oct. 28--After more than four hours of discussion and staunch opposition from nearby residents, Beaufort County and Town of Hilton Head Island officials voted to support extending the Hilton Head Island Airport runway to as much as 5,400 feet.
The two councils passed a joint resolution approving a 20-year master plan prepared by consultants Talbert and Bright guiding development of the county-owned airport.
Hilton Head Island Town Council members John Safay, Bill Ferguson and Ken Heitzke voted against the resolution, along with Beaufort County Council members Steve Baer, Gerald Dawson, Laura Von Harten and Herbert Glaze.
The master plan endorsed by both councils calls for extending the runway from 4,300 feet to 5,400 feet in two phases and keeping the work within the confines of existing airport property, thus removing a threat to St. James Baptist Church, home to a more than 120-year-old native islander congregation.
The extension of the airport runway to 5,400 feet is needed to ensure the future of commercial and private air service on the island, according to Talbert and Bright.
"Due to the constraints of runway length and (tree) obstructions ... the existing airport is marginally adequate for viable service to the Charlotte and Atlanta hubs," according to Talbert and Bright.
Delta Air Lines and US Airways provide commercial service at the airport.
The current runway and tree obstructions mean airlines have to reduce weight on their aircraft and fly them under capacity, making the routes less profitable and less likely to continue. Some customers must wait for later flights during peak season and service is less profitable as a result, the study concludes.
The first phase would extend the runway to 5,000 feet by using a special concrete material at the ends of the runway. The lightweight, crushable concrete slows aircraft rolling into it.
The second phase would extend the runway another 400 feet. This phase would require rerouting part of Beach City Road and acquiring five to seven parcels around the airport.
The first phase could take three to four years or longer to begin, given the federal rules for funding and environmental assessment, said Carl Ellington, principal in charge with Talbert and Bright.
The next step is to submit the master plan to the Federal Aviation Administration and S.C. Aeronautics Commission.
Cost to extend the runway is estimated at more than $20 million, 95 percent of which would be eligible for funding by the Federal Aviation Administration based on available funding. The county and state would split the remaining cost.
The vote came hours after Delta Air Lines announced Thursday it will discontinue service to Hilton Head Island Airport effective Nov. 1, due to poor performance of the route.
Flights have experienced a significant decline in revenues and passenger loads this year. That, combined with decisions to phase out aging aircraft Delta flies in and out of Hilton Head prompted the discontinuation, said Joe Esposito, Delta's managing director for network planning, in a news release
Delta is phasing out use of the 34-seat Saab 340 turboprop plane it uses to provide service to Hilton Head. The airport's 4,300-foot runway cannot accommodate any other aircraft in Delta's fleet, said airline spokesman Trebor Banstetter.
Hilton Head is among four regional markets Delta announced it is suspending service to this winter, due to poor performance. The airline is also discontinuing service in Florence, S.C.; Lynchburg, Va; and London, Ontario.
Ellington said the commercial regional jets remaining in Delta's fleet could operate with restricted loads on a 5,000-foot airport runway. A 5,400-foot runway would open the possibility of non-stop regional jet service to 12 airline hubs as far away as Chicago and New York, he said.
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