Hilton Head just got a new airline. Does it need a bigger airport, too?

More direct flights are coming to Hilton Head airport. Here’s where they’ll take you

With Delta Airlines announcing new direct flights from Hilton Head Island, the airport will fly to five cities starting in the spring of 2019. Here's where they'll take you — and how much a flight could cost you.
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With Delta Airlines announcing new direct flights from Hilton Head Island, the airport will fly to five cities starting in the spring of 2019. Here's where they'll take you — and how much a flight could cost you.

Less than a week after Hilton Head Airport announced that Delta Air Lines will bring the number of carriers to the north-end facility to three, officials say they’re preparing to expand parking and the terminal to keep up with what is expected to be a three-fold increase in travelers.

Airport officials are negotiating with the Federal Aviation Administration to fund a project that includes adding ticketing counters for Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, county airports director Jon Rembold said Monday. They also expect to add customer services such as concessions and convenience shopping, Rembold said.

At the same time, the airport is in talks with the Town of Hilton Head Island to double the amount of parking and revamp the entrance to the airport. Currently, there are 150 parking spaces at the facility. Officials hope to double that number, Rembold said.

Delta announced last week it would begin flying nonstop between Hilton Head and Atlanta beginning May 23 and between the island and New York beginning June 8.

That announcement came on the heels of United’s in November that the national carrier would begin flying from the island to Washington, D.C., on March 31 and to Chicago and New York on April 6.

Until then, American Airlines offers the only commercial jet service at the airport.

In 2017, there were 27,332 enplanements — or departures — from Hilton Head.

Rembold expects that number to triple once all three airlines are landing on the island to more than 100,000 travelers per year.

“It’s definitely going to be busier than what we’re used to but it is going to be vibrant,” he said.

Katherine Kokal, The Island Packet.

A new layout for the terminal

The tripling of seasonal air service to Hilton Head means that efficiency will be key at the airport, Rembold said.

The new terminal design will move passengers through one of the three ticketing counters, security and to the gate area without crossing lines of waiting passengers as they do now.

Since discussions are in the preliminary stages and funding hasn’t been secured, Rembold could offer few specifics, including possible costs. He did say he expected the expansion to be complete within three years.

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“The next step is working with the FAA on the availability of funding,” Rembold said. That federal agency will fund most of the expansion work, he said.

The FAA has funded several projects at the Hilton Head airport in recent years.

The airport received a supplemental grant from the FAA to extend its runway in 2017 as part of a national grant program for smaller airports in the U.S.

The total runway extension project cost $27.5 million, The Island Packet previously reported. The project was funded by three sources: 90 percent by the FAA, five percent by the South Carolina Aeronautics Commission and five percent by the airport itself, according to the airport website.

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Rembold said the funding for a new terminal expansion will be “of lower priority” to the FAA because it does not directly impact air field operations, but he said “the FAA is on board.”

The FAA regional office in Atlanta directed inquiries on the project to the FAA media line, which is not functioning due to the continuing federal government shutdown.

Planned aesthetic improvements involve a new entrance sign, landscaping, irrigation and lighting improvements, according to preapplication materials filed with the town.

In 2018, the airport introduced an art installation by artist Alicia Eggert, which now stands in the terminal.

Katherine Kokal, The Island Packet.

Holding off on a longer runway

The airport completed a runway expansion project in 2018 which lengthened it from 4,300 feet to 5,000, which allowed larger jets to land.

The project was the source of public concern about noise levels, tree removal in the area, lower property values and negative cultural and historical impacts on nearby Mitchelville, the first self-governed settlement for freed slaves in the U.S.

The airport responded with an environmental study.

Rembold said the airport’s master plan calls for a 5,400 foot runway, but extending it to that length isn’t happening in the near future.

“At this point, that’s not what we’re working on,” he said. “The regional jets are operating very successfully there ... We’re pretty comfortable where we’re at.”

But as the terminal expansion project advances, the FAA may require a second environmental study to gather nearby residents’ feedback on a busier airport.

Rembold said he hasn’t heard much from surrounding neighbors recently, even amid two high-profile announcements of new national air carriers.

“I really haven’t heard from the other communities ...” he said. “I don’t think noise is going to be an issue ... because these jets operate pretty quietly.”

But nearby communities are keeping an eye on the expansion.

Ahmad Ward, the executive director of the Mitchelville Preservation Project, said the airport’s expansion has the ability to bring new visitors to Mitchelville but also to hinder the historical site’s potential.

“It’s a situation that we are monitoring, but at the same time, we’re taking a ‘wait-and-see’ type of stance here,” Ward said Monday.

He said he hasn’t heard a lot of “feedback” from neighbors of the airport about the increase in traffic, as opposed to the vocal opposition that surrounded the runway project.

However, Ward said he hopes the community around the airport will be included in discussions about an expansion that would widen the facility’s footprint.

“We are paying attention and making sure that we are in the room for those conversations,” he said. “We hope that we can see the benefit of more people coming in and mitigate anything that would hinder our progress.”