Three hundred feet of extra runway might be all that's needed at the Hilton Head Island Airport to ensure the future of its commercial air service, but that does not justify the cost of the extension to the federal government.
The Federal Aviation Administration has previously said it will support an extension of the 4,300-foot runway to less than 5,400 feet. Now, the FAA is saying the statement is true only to a point.
That point is 5,000 feet.
"A runway length of less than 5,000 feet would result in rapidly diminishing support from the FAA," said Scott Seritt, manager of the FAA's Atlanta Airports District Office, in a letter sent Oct. 4 to county administrator Gary Kubic. "It is the FAA's opinion that the benefits of a runway extension of less than 5,000 feet would not justify the cost."
The letter obtained Tuesday by The Island Packet seeks to clarify a statement Seritt made in an e-mail sent Aug. 24 that says, "If Hilton Head opts for a length less than 5,400 feet, FAA's support will not diminish."
Seritt said he has not seen estimated costs for the various runway options, but said design work, an environmental study and potential noise and pollution control would not be worth the cost for an extension less than 700 feet.
The Hilton Head Island and Beaufort County councils voted in July to ask consultants to analyze the impact of extending the runway to 4,600 feet, 5,000 feet or 5,400 feet. Town and county officials have said shorter extensions would retain commercial service at a lower cost and cause less disruption to nearby property owners.
An interim runway length of 5,000 feet would accommodate many of the aircraft identified in the airport's master plan, Seritt said.
The FAA, though, supports a consultant's conclusion for a proposed runway length of 5,400 feet. The 1,100-foot extension could accommodate planes the airlines use to replace their aging fleets, as well as private jets, the consultants have said.
"Due to the tenuous local political climate and the high cost of runway extensions, I encourage you to extend the runway to 5,400 feet, as you may not have another opportunity in the future," Seritt wrote, adding in a phone interview, "The longer the runway, the more weight you can allow coming in and going out," meaning more passengers and larger aircraft.
A 5,000- to 5,400-foot runway would accommodate private jets carrying four to five passengers, but not larger jets such as Gulfstreams and Falcons, Seritt said. He said a 5,000- to 5,400-foot runway would also allow for safer, expanded use of the turboprop planes US Airways and Delta Air Lines now use at the airport, but not larger regional jets.
The airlines have not said what type of planes they will fly in the future. The industry, however, transitioned from the turboprops to regional jets at the turn of the century.
Seritt said a runway of about 6,500 feet or longer would be needed to handle regional jets, which may not be feasible given the airport's confines.
County administrator Gary Kubic said diminished federal support for a runway of less than 5,000 feet would make shorter options "very unlikely."
The FAA would pay 95 percent of the extension between 5,000 and 5,400 feet. The town and county would pay 2.5 percent, with the state paying the rest.
Kubic said the airport does not generate enough revenue to pay for the millions of dollars it would take for a runway extension and doubted taxpayers would be willing to use money from the county's general fund to pay for such an extension.
"It's a very far-reaching concept to do it without FAA money. The practicality of it is remote," he said. "A 5,000-foot runway would probably be a good halfway point in terms of a decision-making process."