Airport Board again delays Hilton Head landing fee vote, told new revenue agreement 'promising'

tbarton@islandpacket.comNovember 17, 2011 

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A vote to recommend charging private pilots flying into Hilton Head Island Airport was postponed again with officials saying they need more time to negotiate for more revenue from the company that provides flight support for general aviation.

Beaufort County director of airports Paul Andres said Thursday that a deal with Signature Flight Support "appears promising," and he hoped to have "something definitive" for the county Airports Board by Dec. 15.

"We're not far apart in our ideas to modify the agreement to better align with the needs and interests of the airport," he told the board.

Signature Flight Support opposes the landing fee. Its regional vice president, Byron Gray, told the board Oct. 20 he was willing to find alternatives to give more money back to the county in lieu of the landing fee.

General aviation accounts for a majority of traffic at the airport but pays a small fraction of its expenses, Andres has said. The county receives 3 percent of all revenue Signature collects from fees charged to private pilots, including fuel sales.

Gray said Savannah is already taking business from the airport because of Hilton Head's constrained 4,300-foot runway. A landing fee would only continue to drive away business at a time when air traffic has declined because of the struggling economy and Delta Air Lines' departure from Hilton Head last fall.

Air traffic at Hilton Head has fallen about 12 percent from last year, according to board member Will Dopp. Passenger counts are down as well, he said.

"If we're making progress in discussions, then we should defer" a vote on landing fees, chairman Joe Mazzei said.

The airport charges commercial flights a landing fee of $1.31 per 1,000 pounds, as well as firefighting fees, which pay for operating costs.

The board is considering a landing fee of $10 or $1.65 per 1,000 pounds, whichever is greater, to private aircraft based elsewhere that fly in and out of Hilton Head and do not pay long-term fees.

The Hilton Head airport would be the first in the state to charge such a fee, which was proposed to make the airport more self-sufficient.

The airport's cash position has improved over the last five years, but it is still negative and has been for most of the last decade, said county chief financial officer David Starkey.

But Andres and other county officials have argued the airport is "cash flow positive," but depreciation makes it appear unprofitable.

Hilton Head posted $38,000 in operating income July through September with depreciation factored out, Andres said.

Depreciation, Andres argues, is irrelevant because the Federal Aviation Administration pays for most improvements. The better measurement, he said, is cash flow from operations, which has been positive during the past several years and ebbs and flows with the timing of FAA reimbursements.

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead

Related Content:

Island airport finances dissected: Oct. 26, 2011

County airport board postpones vote on Hilton Head landing fee: Oct. 20, 2011

Haley declines to weight in on airport landing fee: Oct. 10, 2011

SC Aeronautics Commission take aim at landing fee at Hilton Head airport: Oct. 3, 2011

Hilton Head passenger, landing fees debated by county airport board: Sept. 15, 2011

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