Hilton Head Island Airport could get a longer runway a year earlier than expected if Beaufort County speeds the purchase of some land and compresses the work schedule.
Doing so, however, will require the airport to scurry for money to pay for the purchases, county airports director Paul Andres told the Beaufort County Airports Board on Thursday.
The airports board voted last month to recommend that consultants study ways to put plans to extend the runway on a faster track.
Extending the Hilton Head Island Airport runway to 5,000 feet is more than four years away under a tentative timeline.
The biggest challenge to speeding things up is the purchase of seven parcels at the south end and northwest corner of the airport, Andres said.
Typically, the Federal Aviation Administration will not help pay for land purchases needed for airport improvements until an environmental assessment and cost-benefit analysis are completed.
The FAA, though, granted the airport an exemption to the rule for the purchase of four commercial properties at the south end of the runway, Andres said.
The purchases are needed to straighten, lengthen and relocate the airport's two taxiways.
Andres said the FAA granted the exemption because the purchases are needed to correct current airport deficiencies, not to provide for expanded service that would require extensive study.
The four properties have yet to be appraised, but Andres expects them to cost the county "several hundred thousand."
"That's the elephant in the room," he said. "We'll have to see if we have the financial resources to consider that."
Meanwhile, the county could simultaneously design the 700-foot extension and work on an environmental assessment and cost-benefit analysis. That would enable the county to solicit construction bids as soon as the FAA approves the two reports.
However, the FAA won't pay for the design work until it approves the other two reports. The S.C. Aeronautics Commission and airport consultant Talbert & Bright have said they are willing to cover the cost of the design work and await reimbursement by the FAA, Andres said.
Should the FAA not reimburse the cost, both the state and Talbert & Bright would "eat" their shares, Andres said, adding "there's no risk" to the county.Airport officials say Hilton Head has the shortest runway for commercial service in the continental U.S.
A master plan for calls for a two-phased expansion of the 4,300-foot runway to 5,400 feet to ensure the future of commercial and private air service. The first phase calls for a 700-foot extension.
Delta Air Lines pulled out of Hilton Head this past fall, citing the route's poor performance. The commercial carrier also reduced its fleet of turboprops that operated from Hilton Head. The runway is too short to accommodate other aircraft in Delta's fleet, the company says.
Both Delta and US Airways -- now the island's lone commercial carrier -- have said they could carry more passengers, making the routes more profitable and thereby more likely to continue, if the runway was extended.