Traveler numbers at Hilton Head Island Airport declined for the third consecutive year in 2013, as passenger totals dropped to their lowest levels since Delta Air Lines suspended service in 2010.
Slightly more than 117,000 passengers arrived or departed from the airport last year, about 5,000 fewer than in 2012 and nearly 55,000 fewer than when traffic peaked in 2007, according to Beaufort County Airports Board statistics.
"Numbers continued to drop this year," board member Will Dopp said as he read the statistics to the board Thursday.
Members offered various reasons for the decrease in visitors, such as lack of awareness by potential customers and the area's failure to woo another carrier to replace Delta. US Airways is the airport's sole commercial carrier.
Board chairman Pete Buchanan said the problem isn't a lack of demand, but a lack of choice for the customer. Currently, Charlotte is the airport's only year-round commercial destination.
"I think (the problem) may be where they are a going," he said. "If someone is going anywhere but Charlotte, they'll go there from Savannah or Charleston."
Poor passenger numbers at the airport are not new. The airport's flight departures were down 28 percent between 2007 and 2012, and 41 percent fewer seats were filled during that time, according to a study released in May by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The study showed fewer flights and passengers were using medium- and small-hub airports around the country. Experts blamed higher fuel prices, industry consolidation and a preference by airlines for profitability over market share.
In August, the board tapped a subcommittee to discuss strategies to entice another airline to Hilton Head.
"I would love to see the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce get together and help the airport in the same way it helped Savannah (bring in Jet Blue)," subcommittee member Anne Esposito said Tuesday.
Hilton Head Airport director Jon Rembold said lack of exposure also could have hurt numbers.
"You'd be surprised by how many folks drive by and don't even know it's there," he said.
The lackluster results come as airport officials are pushing to bring the airport up to Federal Aviation Administration safety standards.
Five projects must be completed to meet those standards, including the relocation and realignment of two taxiways. The projects would require the county, which owns the airport, to buy several surrounding business properties.
Even though numbers were low, Rembold said he's not deterred. He plans to continue working toward the projects to realize what he called "a nest egg of economic potential."
"My optimism is not feigned," he said. "Airports are hotbeds of development."
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