Timing wrong to expand Hilton Head's terminal

info@islandpacket.comAugust 21, 2013 

SUBMITTED RENDERINGS — Submitted renderings

Beaufort County officials have postponed a $1.9 million expansion of the Hilton Head Island Airport.

Not because common sense prevailed but because bids for the work to add 4,250 square feet and renovate existing areas came in 25 percent higher than expected. The county plans to reopen the bidding next month, but it should stop this project.

Common sense suggests not to expand an airport terminal that is seeing fewer arriving and departing passengers than in years past.

The number of arrivals has dropped by about 14,000 since Delta Air Lines stopped service to Hilton Head in 2010, according to county figures. The same is true for departing passengers. In 2011 and 2012, arrivals numbered about 62,000 each year and departures numbered about 61,000. That's down from about 76,000 arrivals and 74,000 departures in 2010. For 2013, both are on pace to be about 2,000 lower than in 2012.

Certainly, common sense suggests not spending $1.9 million -- or more -- on the terminal until efforts to bring in another commercial carrier are successful. That's true even if the Federal Aviation Administration picks up 90 percent of the cost, as it is expected to do.

A newly formed subcommittee of the county Airports Board is looking for an airline to replace Delta. Right now, only US Airways flies into the airport. It's been a mainstay of the Hilton Head airport since the late 1970s even as other airlines have come and gone.

Subcommittee member Will Dopp of Hilton Head said, "... We have a terminal that can accommodate another one or two more commercial airlines, and are in the process of designing and approving an expansion of the terminal. There are things being done, and who knows who's out there if we don't start looking."

This won't be easy. The subcommittee's efforts come when fewer flights and passengers are using medium- and small-hub airports, according to a recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The declines were attributed to higher fuel prices, industry consolidation and a preference for profitability over market share in the past five years.

Still, we hope the group's efforts are successful if only because more people flying into and out of the airport helps justify local, state and federal investments in the airport, especially a plan to extend the runway to 5,000 feet.

The terminal does have maintenance issues that should be addressed. Part of the work described in the county's application to the Town of Hilton Head Island 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.

The county would do well to maintain its facility and find another commercial user. After that, an expansion might make sense.

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