Beaufort County, Hilton Head officials vote to extend airport runway

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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.

"Regarding future flights if the runway is extended, we can't comment specifically, but we're always reviewing our schedule for opportunities to establish successful service if customer demand warrants it," Banstetter said.

A group of Palmetto Hall, Baygall and Port Royal residents, as well as members of St. James Baptist Church, challenged Talbert and Bright's findings, calling them incomplete.

The report fails to adequately analyze the costs and benefits of potential alternative runway lengths, said Ron Smetek, a Palmetto Hall resident.

He and others also argue the cost figures provided by Talbert and Bright for the proposed runway lengths do not take into account declines in property values to homes and real estate near the airport that will result from increased noise, which will affect county tax revenue.

Beaufort County Councilman Steve Baer also disputed Talbert and Bright's claims that regional jets could takeoff on the 4,597 feet of useable runway and questioned other numbers provided by the consultant. Baer also said the study inflates forecasts for future airport activity, and understates the potential for newer turboprops planes to provide commercial service, which require a shorter runway of 4,600 feet and are quieter.

"We pay a lot more money for not much added runway performance," he said. "This study is full of gaps, holes and inconsistencies ... . Rushing to vote with known impacts to the north end of the island and missing and loose data will reflect poorly on the councils."

Hilton Head Island Town Councilman Drew Laughlin saw the issue differently.

"It is irresponsible for us to do nothing," he said. "And if we miss this opportunity, we might not get it again. We need to keep our options open. I'm not convinced of the benefits of going to the full 5,400 feet. I think 5,000 feet gives a decent regard to the folks (north of the runway). Five thousand feet will enhance profitability of the airlines, bringing more passengers to Hilton Head and enhance safety."

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