Island residents question recommendation to extend airport's runway

A group of island residents are questioning a consultant's recommendation as Beaufort County and Town of Hilton Head officials prepare to approve a plan to extend the Hilton Head Island Airport's runway.

A group of Palmetto Hall and Baygall residents and members of St. James Baptist Church, which sits at the north end of the runway, say consultant Talbert and Bright produced a misleading report.

Attempts to reach a representative from Talbert and Bright were unsuccessful Friday.

The firm's recommendation is the same as earlier versions of the plan -- a runway of 5,400 feet is needed to ensure the future of commercial and private air service on the island.

"Due to the constraints of runway length and (tree) obstructions ... the existing airport is marginally adequate for viable service to the Charlotte and Atlanta hubs," according to Talbert and Bright.

The current runway and tree obstructions mean airlines have to reduce weight on their aircraft and fly them under capacity. Some customers must wait for later flights during peak season and service is less profitable as a result, the study concludes.

Airport officials say Hilton Head has the shortest runway for commercial service in the continental U.S.

Delta Air Lines and US Airways currently provide commercial service at the airport. Both have indicted they could carry more passengers -- and make the routes more profitable and thereby more likely to continue -- if the runway was extended by at least 700 feet, according to the study.

Bob Richardson, president of the Palmetto Hall property owners association, and other residents say that argument is flimsy -- none of the proposed lengths reviewed by Talbert and Bright allows for the possibility larger commercial jets could fly fully loaded into Hilton Head, according to Richardson.

Most regional jets require at least a 6,500-foot runway for takeoff, preferably longer, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Delta confirmed Thursday that it will stop using the turboprop planes it flies into Hilton Head as early as 2012.

"It's accurate that we won't be able to serve Hilton Head once we phase the Saab 340 turboprop out of Delta's fleet, and we'll be forced to suspend service," Delta spokesman Trebor Banstetter wrote in an e-mail. "Regarding future flights if the runway is extended, we can't comment specifically, but we're always reviewing our schedule for opportunities to establish successful service if customer demand warrants it."

The only aircraft in Delta's fleet that could replace the turboprops, the Canadair Regional Jet 200, cannot operate on the airport's 4,300-foot runway. One version, the 200ER, requires a 5,800-foot runway for takeoff when fully loaded. Another version, the 200LR, requires more than 6,000 feet, according to manufacturer specifications.

US Airways also said it plans to phase out its aging turboprop planes but has not announced a replacement aircraft.

Attempts to reach a US Airways representatives were unsuccessful.

One popular choice for replacing the aging planes seems to be the next generation of turboprops -- Bombardier's 70-seat Q400, for example. It requires 4,600 feet to takeoff fully loaded, according to the manufacturer. The plane could operate on the current runway at a reduced load and with tree trimming, according to Bombardier. Its payload range expands significantly with a runway of 4,800 feet, according to a Bombardier commercial aircraft official.

Both Delta and US Airways have said the Q400 would be "a great fit for future operations" at the airport, according to Talbert and Bright.

"As demonstrated daily, commercial turboprop planes conduct safe, effective operations from the current runway and, with prudent on-airport tree trimming, will continue to do so into the foreseeable future," said Palmetto Hall resident Ron Smetek. "The 5,400-foot runway now being proposed is longer than is needed for turboprop aircraft and inadequate for regional jets. The expenditure of the money for that length of runway ... is both unnecessary and wasteful."

However, Wexford resident Nick Esposito, a captain with United Airlines, says the 50-seat CRJ 200 could provide service to Atlanta and Charlotte with a 5,000-foot runway, under certain weight, weather and surface conditions, and could serve 12 airline hubs for five major airlines with a 5,400-foot runway.

"The 5,400 feet opens up the potential viability of regional jets that could then utilize (Hilton Head airport) for non-stop destinations as far away as Chicago and New York," Esposito said in a report. "US Air would then be allowed to use a combination of different aircraft" to serve Charlotte and Washington, D.C.

Delta also could reintroduce Atlanta service and possibly add New York to help feed its international market, he said.

Talbert and Bright have said a 5,000-foot runway would be acceptable as an interim step toward 5,400 feet.

A runway length of less than 5,000 feet would result in "rapidly diminishing" support from the FAA, which would pay up to 95 percent of the extension between 5,000 and 5,400 feet, based on available funding.

Commercial enplanements -- a count of passengers boarding planes -- reached a high of 103,000 in 1999 on Hilton Head and a low of 61,400 in 2004. Numbers have picked up since then, reaching 75,000 in 2009. That's up from 71,000 in 2008, according to numbers from Talbert and Bright.

However, annual flight operations -- takeoffs and landings -- at the airport have fallen from a high of about 93,800 in 2000 to 38,237 in 2009.

Nonetheless, Talbert and Bright predict 56,900 annual operations and 124,000 commercial enplanements by 2029.

"This recent reduction is due primarily to the contraction of the economy. A large portion of general aviation users rely on discretionary income to operate their aircraft," according to the consultant's study. "However, a restoration of the economy will result in increased activity at the airport, including based aircraft and commercial operations" requiring a longer runway.