Expanding terminal should defer to safety, maintenance

info@islandpacket.comMay 21, 2013 

Hilton Head Island Airport plans to expand its terminal, which is expected to cost about $1.9 million, according to Beaufort County's 2011 updated airport master plan. The larger rendering shows the proposed expansion of the terminal, while the inset illustrates the terminal in its current state.

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Declining passenger numbers at the Hilton Head Island Airport make it difficult to see the need for a nearly $2 million expansion and renovation of its commercial terminal.

Beaufort County, the airport's owner, wants to expand the 18-year-old terminal by 4,246 feet and renovate another 3,696 feet of existing space. Part of that would include building bathrooms and opening a vending area beyond its security checkpoint.

Certainly, required changes in security screening that came seven years after the terminal opened in 1995 make its original design less than optimal. But is an expansion really necessary?

The Federal Aviation Administration's recent warning about trees that could pose a danger to approaching planes reinforces the conclusion that the airport has more pressing problems to use potentially scarce federal dollars to address. The FAA has banned three types of instrument landing procedures at the airport at night because the trees have encroached on a safety zone for descending planes. The county has asked consulting firm Talbert, Bright and Ellington to survey areas around the runways to determine where the FAA assessment of tree height is correct. From there, the county would prepare a strategy to remove the obstructions.

Given the complications and long time-frame for past tree trimming and removal efforts at the airport, county officials can't start too soon.

As for the terminal, a recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that the airport's departures were down 28 percent between 2007 and 2012 and 41 percent fewer seats were filled during that time. Of course, Delta Airlines' departure from the airport in 2010 contributed a great deal to that decline, but until those numbers are going up again, an expansion doesn't make sense even if the county isn't bearing the brunt of the cost.

The FAA would pay 90 percent, with the state and county, splitting the remaining 10 percent -- or about $95,000 each.

It's not clear whether this project will go forward on the schedule the county has laid out, with work beginning this fall. An FAA spokesman said the agency is still trying to determine whether the money can be spent under sequestration.

Discussions about updating the terminal date back to at least 2007. Airport officials have long wanted to put bathrooms in the secure waiting area. In 2008, the county installed wireless Internet access, spruced up the vending machine area, added a beverage vending machine in the secure area and cleaned out an old advertising display.

But major renovations and repair work were put on hold for several years when the county couldn't come up with funding for the work. Instead, projects outside the terminal building, such as tree removal and drainage improvements, took priority, as they should have.

Since then, the county has put in place a $4.50 per ticket surcharge, which is expected to bring in about $3.7 million over its life. The fee, which started in May 2012 and will expire in August 2026, is to be used to repay the county about $1.6 million for building an air traffic control tower, widening and strengthening the runway, building and equipping a new airport fire and rescue station and tree removal. The rest is to be used to cover the county's share of extending the runway from 4,300 to 5,000 feet, realigning taxiways and renovating the terminal.

The county has maintenance issues with the terminal that should be addressed. Part of the work described in its recent application to Hilton Head Island's Design Review Board includes replacing the existing metal roof, fixing surface rusting on structural steel, replacing rotten wood roof decking and replacing existing gutters at the drop-off canopy.

This type of work should be done. Expansion can wait until passenger numbers head back up.

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