A group of Beaufort County officials hopes to woo another commercial airline to Hilton Head Island.
A new subcommittee of the county's Airport Board will meet Thursday to discuss a possible replacement for Delta Air Lines, which pulled out of the Hilton Head Airport in October 2010.
"This is an initial start. It may lead to something or nothing," said subcommittee member and Hilton Head resident Will Dopp. "... 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."
The subcommittee's effort comes at a time 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, experts said.
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The Hilton Head Airport's flight departures were down 28 percent between 2007 and 2012, and 41 percent fewer seats were filled during that time, according to the study and county data.
Airport officials attribute part of that decline to Delta's departure.
Delta eliminated flights on its 34-seat turboprops that operated from the island. The airport's 4,300-foot runway is too short to accommodate other aircraft in Delta's fleet, the company has said. The airline also cited the route's poor performance.
County officials argue that after the runway is lengthened to 5,000 feet, which could be several years from now, the airport will be able to accommodate larger planes and serve customers who now fly to Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport.
"Once the runway is extended, the county has been told by airlines that the airport will be more desirable to fly in and out of," county spokeswoman Joy Nelson wrote in an email.
The Savannah airport also is experiencing less flight traffic, according to the MIT study. Departures there dropped by 18 percent between 2007 and 2012. Occupied seats declined by 23 percent.
Higher fuel costs have also prompted airlines in recent years to shed regional jets, the kind that could be used on Hilton Head's lengthened runway, according to industry data.
US Airways, the island's sole commercial carrier, still flies the small jets into small cities, but some question for how long. The airline, along with others, has cut back on its smallest jets and propeller planes.
Airports Board chairman Pete Buchanan argues turboprops are making a comeback with fuel-efficient designs. He says pressure is building for airlines to expand the use of turboprops as a cost-saving, short-haul passenger aircraft. Such a shift could make Hilton Head an attractive destination for small, regional carriers, Buchanan said.
Alaska Airlines, for example, recently decided to use turboprops instead of jets for service to Anchorage as a way to cut operating expenses and lower fares, according to USA Today.
Dopp and Buchanan also doubted that the looming closure of the airport's control tower would hinder their efforts.
The tower is expected to close after Sept. 30, as the FAA is cutting funding for 149 contractor-run control towers across the U.S. as part of the federal sequester.
The airport, which serves commercial, private and general aviation, can function safely without a tower, the county says. It operated smoothly for years without air-traffic control service, which was added in 2004 when the tower was built.
Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Bill Miles supports the subcommittee's aim and says the group would be wise to focus on drawing service to Hilton Head from the Northeast -- such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia and even Toronto.
"Those are strong markets and demographics for us," he said. "Any time you give travelers additional travel options for getting to the Lowcountry, it is certainly a very good thing. It's important for our visitors and the quality of life for our residents, as well.
"We are seeing positive economic investment in our area, and strong commercial air service can only serve to strengthen our entire Lowcountry economy."
Hunting for airlines
A new subcommittee of the Beaufort County Airports Board will meet at 2:30 p.m. Thursday in County Council chambers, 100 Ribaut Road, Beaufort. The meeting will immediately follow the regularly scheduled board meeting at 1:30 p.m. The committee will discuss the possibility of luring an additional airline to the Hilton Head Island Airport.
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.