High fuel costs have prompted airlines to shed regional jets, the kind that could be used at Hilton Head Island Airport'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, is cutting back on its smallest jets and propeller planes. Four years ago, the airline had 94 planes with 50 or fewer seats. The airline now has 80, according to The Charlotte Observer.
What impact the airline's move will have for Hilton Head, though, remains to be seen.
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US Airways provides eight daily flights to Charlotte and Washington, D.C., on a 37-seat turboprop, and seems happy with the arrangement.
"That's the right-size aircraft for use in that market, and that seems to be working out for us," Davien Anderson, corporate communications specialist for US Airways, said Monday.
The airport's 4,300-foot runway and tree obstructions, however, hinder the company's operations, according to pilots and an airline official. Beaufort County and Hilton Head Island officials are working to ease restrictions by cutting trees at the north end and moving forward with plans to lengthen the runway.
Airport officials say Hilton Head has the shortest runway for commercial service in the continental U.S.
County Council and Town Council adopted a master plan last year that includes a two-phased expansion of the runway to 5,400 feet, aimed at preserving commercial and private air service. The first phase calls for a 700-foot extension, which is more than four years away under a tentative timeline.
But news that airlines are getting rid of the small jets seems to dampen hopes the island can retain commercial service with a longer runway.
Anderson said US Airways would not reveal the company's long-term plans for the airport, even assuming the runway is extended.
FUEL COSTS CHANGE ECONOMICS
In the late 1990s, small jets and turboprops were a profitable way for airlines to connect people in small cities to the rest in the world. The flights attracted higher-paying business travelers. Then, jet fuel prices soared -- from 78 cents per gallon in 2000 to $3.16 today.
That changed the economics of small planes. A Delta 50-seat CRJ-200 made by Bombardier takes 19 gallons of fuel to fly each passenger 500 miles. Fuel usage drops to just 7.5 gallons per passenger on Delta's 160-seat MD-90s over the same distance, according to The Associated Press.
Delta, United Continental and other big airlines are expected to park, scrap or sell hundreds of jets with 50 seats or fewer in coming years. Small propeller planes are meeting the same fate.
Delta pulled out of Hilton Head last year as it eliminated flights on 34-seat turboprops. Now, Delta is moving away from small jets more aggressively than other airlines. It will have eliminated 121 of its 50-seat jets from October 2008 through the end of next year. That will leave it with 324, according to the AP.
US Airways relies extensively on regional jets to service Charlotte, its largest hub, but is using slightly larger ones, such as the Embraer 175, which has 78 to 88 seats, depending on the configuration. In 2007, the airline had 24 of those jets. Today, it has 38, according to The Charlotte Observer.
Some Delta routes served by 50-seaters are getting bigger planes instead, but Hilton Head's extended runway could not handle the 142-seat and 160-seat jets. It may be able to accommodate larger jets in US Airways' fleet, such as the Embraer 170 and 175, though some doubt the airport would be suited for their use.
The small regional jets airlines are cutting back on require a runway length of 5,500 to 5,600 feet to take off at maximum weight, according to county airport consultant Talbert & Bright. The planes, however, do operate at reduced loads on runways of 4,800 to 5,400 feet.
"I have not had any conversations with US Airways about their future plans as it pertains to use of regional jets," county director of airports Paul Andres said Monday. "But I would not think (use of larger regional jets) would be likely at Hilton Head. ... I can't speak for the airlines. What I can say is the larger the jet becomes, typically, the longer the runway they require."
SMALL CITIES LOSE FLIGHTS
Nationwide, the loss of those planes is leaving some small cities -- including those with populations larger than Hilton Head -- with fewer flights or no flights at all. The Airports Council International says 27 small airports in the continental U.S. have lost service from well-known commercial airlines over the past two years.
More shutdowns are planned, but airport expansion advocate Anne Esposito doesn't think Hilton Head will be one them. The pilot and former airport manager said the island remains a profitable route for US Airways, even with turboprop service.
"It would have to be a catastrophe for US Airways to pull out," she said. "Hilton Head and Savannah are high-revenue markets -- that is, ticket prices are higher than about 75 percent of similar markets, so lower loads can be accommodated profitably."
The number of passengers on US Airways flights at Hilton Head was up 16 percent, to 106,285, from January through October compared to the same period last year, according to a county Airports Board report.
Esposito also argues that a 5,400-foot runway could handle US Airways 76-seat Embraer 170, as well as other "70-seat jets."
"The newer jets are constructed in such a way that they can land and take off in shorter distances carrying more people," she said. "It just makes sense for an airline to keep up with new aircraft technology" that saves on fuel costs.
As for flights being cut to small airports, Esposito questions whether routes would have been cut regardless of fuel prices.
"It is a good excuse for an airline to use rather than saying that the route wasn't profitable," she said.
The Associated Press and The Charlotte Observer contributed to this report.
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead.