State aviation officials have tried to discourage Beaufort County from charging private pilots to fly to Hilton Head Island by placing a caveat on state grants.
The S.C. Aeronautic Commission set new criteria in a vote Aug. 25 that landing fees or runway usage fees will be seen as "a negative consideration" for awarding grants for airport improvements.
Beaufort County Councilman Rick Caporale called the move a "veiled threat."
Paul Werts, executive director of the aeronautic commission, said the commission is chartered to promote aviation and air commerce. Imposing a landing fee for general aviation would discourage users and hurt the Hilton Head and state economies, Werts said.
"In South Carolina, pilots and the aviation community already compensate for airport construction with a fuel tax and (other) expenses," he said. "You're mandating a fee on commerce, and the commission has taken a negative view of that."
The county is in the process of requesting $66,783 from the state to match about $2.5 million in Federal Aviation Administration grants for airport projects.
During the next five years, the county expects to ask the state for about $350,000 for airport improvements.
In general, the FAA pays for about 95 percent of eligible airport construction projects, with the state kicking in about 2.5 percent.
It's unclear what bearing the commission's vote will have on federal grants or whether a landing fee would cover a potential loss in state money, said county airports director Paul Andres.
The fee is expected to generate more than $100,000 a year.
Hilton Head Island Airport would be the first in the state to charge such a fee, set at a minimum of $10 or up to $1.65 per 1,000 pounds -- whichever is greater -- to private aircraft.
Currently, the airport charges commercial flights a landing fee of $1.31 per 1,000 pounds as well as fire-fighting fees, which pay for operating costs.
Private aircraft owners who pay fees for permanent tie-downs or who rent a county hangar would be exempt since they already contribute to the airport's operations.
The fee would not apply to the Beaufort County Airport on Lady's Island, where there is no commercial service and general aviation traffic is much lighter.
It would apply, however, to aircraft based elsewhere that fly in and out and do not pay the long-term fees.
Some members of the county airports board have warned that air traffic at Hilton Head has declined because of the struggling economy and Delta Air Lines' departure last fall. Imposing a landing fee could cause numbers to fall further, they said.
"Our recommendation could be contingent on whether the new landing fee would offset a potential loss in state grant funding to where it would be a wash," said airports board chairman Joe Mazzei. "Ultimately, County Council really needs to decide what action it wants to take, with the understanding that it would negatively impact state grants for airport improvements."
The fee is being proposed to help make the airport more self-sufficient.
The Hilton Head airport posted a $381,727 operating loss for the 2011 fiscal year. It also owes the county general fund about $1.5 million on a loan for prior construction projects.
"The arguments against are not without merit, but there's a strong argument to be made for it, especially when we're cutting library and community center hours, holding back increases in the school budget when student population has increased, and are furloughing hundreds of county employees," Caporale said.
General aviation at Hilton Head Island Airport accounts for more than 70 percent of airport traffic but pays less than 25 percent of costs, according to airport officials.
"Commercial is subsidizing general aviation and beyond that taxpayers are subsidizing the airport in general," Caporale said. "At the same time, County Council reduced property taxes from 10.5 to 6 percent for aircraft owners."
The board will vote on the landing fee Oct. 20 for recommendation to County Council.
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead.