FAA tries to clarify its stand on Hilton Head runway length

Confusion abounds, even among candidates for mayor, about what the federal government is willing to pay for if the Hilton Head Island Airport runway is extended.

The Town of Hilton Head Island and Beaufort County councils voted in July to ask consultants to analyze the impact of extending the airport's runway to three lengths -- 4,600 feet, 5,000 feet and 5,400 feet.

Town Council member and mayoral candidate John Safay said shorter extensions will allow the island to retain commercial service at less cost and with less disruption to the north end of the airport property.

Several residents, including mayoral candidate Tom Crews, have disputed those claims, saying the Federal Aviation Administration has decreed it will only pay to extend the runway to 5,400 feet.

That assertion is inaccurate, according to the FAA.

Crews and others point to a letter sent in February to county administrator Gary Kubic from Scott Seritt, manager of the FAA's Atlanta Airports District Office.

In the letter, Seritt describes the methodology used by consultants Talbert & Bright to evaluate runway lengths as part of the master plan to conform to the FAA's design requirements. Seritt also states the FAA supports the consultant's conclusion for a proposed runway length of 5,400 feet.

However, that does not mean the FAA would fund an extension only if it were lengthened to 5,400 feet, according to Kathleen Bergen, spokeswoman for the FAA's southern region.

"The decision to extend a runway or develop any portion of the airport is a local decision," Bergen said on Friday. "We have told the airport a runway extension up to 5,400 feet can be justified, but no longer than that. But we haven't approved anything yet."

Talbert & Bright have recommended a two-phase extension that would push the runway from its present length of 4,300 feet to 5,400 over several years, based on short-term and future aviation demands at the airport.

Realtors and private pilots say they worry the island's economy will suffer if it does not cater to corporate business traffic, which needs a longer runway.

Residents of Palmetto Hall, Port Royal Plantation and the Baygall area, as well as congregants of St. James Baptist Church, have pleaded with the councils to keep the runway as is, fearing the noise, drop in property values and pollution that might come with expansion.

Talbert & Bright is expected to present a final draft of the airport master plan to a joint meeting of the town and county councils later this month, said county airports manager Paul Andres.