Justifications for extending runway don't hold up to scrutiny

October 25, 2010 

Extending the Hilton Head Island Airport runway has been a hot topic throughout our island.

We, your fellow citizens who live in proximity to the airport, feel it important to clarify a number of extension-related issues.

Tourism and the airport. The airport is a legacy from an earlier, visionary generation. It should be valued by the community since it enhances the island's image as a destination, helps maintain our prestige with events such as the Heritage golf tournament and is convenient for some visitors and commuters. While this is all good, the perception of some -- that the airport is an "economic engine" for the island -- goes far beyond any reliable, quantifiable data to support that assertion.

Facts underscore that our island is fortunate in that it is reachable by road. Approximately 97 percent of all visitors arrive via our roads and bridges, with the airport handling the remaining volume. Further, the airport's direct influence on the economy is, in fact, also relatively modest, representing less than 2 percent of the island's economic activity. Airlines are consistently underselling available seats.

Commercial aviation's future. Some assert our island will lose commercial service unless the runway is extended to accommodate larger regional jets. In fact, neither of the commercial airlines that serve our island has asked the town or Beaufort County to extend the runway to support future operations.

As demonstrated daily, commercial turboprop planes conduct safe, effective operations from the current runway, and with prudent on-airport tree trimming, will continue to do so into the foreseeable future. New turboprop models, such as the Bombardier-produced Q400, operate on even shorter runways, with less than full passenger loads, and are profitable. Pinnacle Airlines, Delta's new subsidiary, already operates Q400 aircraft and has orders for more.

Additionally, for short-haul operations, commercial carriers are removing regional jets from their inventories in favor of turboprops. Their rationale is business-based: Turboprop aircraft are more cost-effective to operate, particularly to short-haul destinations, such as Hilton Head. Most importantly, manufacturers' specifications and Federal Aviation Administration tests for regional jets dictate that a runway length of 5,800 to 6,500 feet is needed, much longer than the 5,000- or 5,400-foot options being proposed.

Jets, noise and property values. Noise impact studies at communities around the country have shown that aircraft-related noise from airports negatively affects property values -- 18.6 percent to 27.4 percent -- within a six-mile radius, thus making noise a true north- and south-island issue. Property tax revenue to the county would also decrease due to decreased values of homes and properties.

Impacts on St. James-Baygall-Mitchelville communities. The St. James Baptist Church has existed at its location since 1886. The airport was built 40 years ago with its runway in a direct line with the church.

Some ask, "Why doesn't the church move to another location?" The reasons are many. Principally, the church is one of the few remaining institutional remnants of historic Mitchelville (circa 1862), likely the first town in the nation built and governed by former slaves, and listed on the National Register for Historic Places. The community in which the airport was built is one of the most historically significant areas of the island, the state and the nation. A significant portion of the airport lies within this archeological site, which includes the richest find of African-American pre- and post-civil war era artifacts in the Southeast. Airport expansion would destroy forever a hallowed place.

Cost versus benefits. Who are the possible beneficiaries and what are the benefits? One beneficiary, commercial airlines, conducts 25 percent to 30 percent of flight operations and provides 44 percent of total airport operating revenues. However, since their turboprop aircraft do not need the extensions to 5,400 feet or 5,000 feet, they derive no benefit from the large costs incurred.

The other beneficiary -- private aviation operators -- account for 70 percent to 75 percent of flight operations, but pay only 17 percent of total operating revenues. More than 50 percent of these private aircraft are small, single-engine aircraft that do not require any runway extension. Approximately 10 percent are twin-jet aircraft that would only marginally benefit from any runway extension.

The substantial costs to extend the runway, well in excess of $20 million, will be almost exclusively borne by local and federal taxpayers, who will derive no benefits from extending the runway because commercial operations do not require it. Benefits will be derived by a minuscule number of general aviation jet-aircraft owners who will bear none of the expansion costs. This does not make good business or fiscal sense.

We support well-conceived commercial operations at the airport. We do not support extending the runway without solid justifications -- and none exists.

We have been good neighbors to the airport; we expect the airport to be a good neighbor to us.

Ron Smetek is vice president of the Palmetto Hall Plantation Property Owners Association.

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