Runway extension work could begin in 2013

Construction to extend the runway at the Hilton Head Island Airport to 5,000 feet could begin in 2013, Beaufort County officials say.

The county Airports Board approved a list of planned airport improvements Thursday, including recommendations from a 20-year master plan recently adopted by county and Hilton Head councils. That plan calls for extending the runway from 4,300 feet to 5,400 feet in two phases, the first a 700-foot addition.

County officials say they will request about $25.5 million from the Federal Aviation Administration to pay for $27 million in improvements to the county-owned airport through 2016. The county and state would split the remaining costs.

Most of that money, about $16 million, would pay for construction, land purchases, engineering, design and other runway-extension costs.

"This puts the FAA, state and county on notice," said Judy Elder of consulting firm Talbert & Bright, which prepared the master plan.

The county must submit by January a revised five-year plan for projects to be eligible for FAA grants, airports director Paul Andres said. The grants typically are awarded in the summer, based on congressional funding.

The airport is entitled to as much as $1 million a year from the FAA. It competes with other commercial airports in the Southeast for additional discretionary money not earmarked for specific projects. Projects to improve safety receive the highest priority, according to the FAA.

The list of proposed improvements goes next to County Council's Public Facilities Committee. Then, it is on to the full council for final approval.

Extending the runway to 5,400 feet is necessary to ensure the future of commercial and private air service on the island, Airports Board members said. The current runway and tree obstructions force airlines to reduce aircraft weight and fly them at less than capacity, making routes less profitable and less likely to continue, they said.

Delta Air Lines discontinued service to the airport Nov. 1, citing the route's poor performance. Delta has announced in previous years it was ending service at the airport, only to return when tourist season resumed in March.

The latest Delta departure announcement led to discussion Thursday about what the company's absence would mean to airport revenue.

Board member Will Dopp said Delta accounts for about one-fourth of the airport's monthly revenues. The airline paid the county about $25,000 in June for monthly landing and security fees and rent for terminal, office and runway space.

"That's going to have a large impact" on the airport budget, Dopp said.

Passenger loads and revenue from flights have declined significantly this year, Joe Esposito, Delta's managing director for network planning, said in a news release. That, combined with a phase-out of aging planes Delta flies in and out of Hilton Head, prompted the discontinuation, the release said.

Overall passenger departures, though, were up 11 percent through October at the airport, compared to the same period in 2009, according to county figures. There were 65,780 departures in 2010 compared to 59,053 in 2009.

Andres said an Airports Board workshop later this year will be used to address the effect of Delta's departure on the airport's budget.