US Airways' frustration grows over island airport's tree, runway issues

Rising fuel costs and runway and weather restrictions prompted US Airways to end its service at Key West, Fla. two weeks ago.

Now, Hilton Head Island is in the airline's "cross hairs," a US Airways official said Tuesday.

The island airport's lone commercial carrier's frustration is growing as it loses money to delays in tree-cutting and a short runway, according to Alex Amaxopulos, US Airways station manager at Hilton Head.

The runway and tree obstructions hinder the company's operations, Amaxopulos said. It's worse in summer, when high temperatures and humidity force the airline to fly fewer passengers because of reduced lift. Customers often have to wait for later flights during peak season, making the service less profitable, he said.

US Airways typically discontinues service at Key West for hurricane season at the end of July but closed earlier this year because of economics.

Key West has a 4,800-foot runway -- longer than Hilton Head's 4,300-foot one -- but the airline was forced to fly regional jets from Key West at 75 percent capacity because of runway length and weather, Amaxopulos said.

"With increased fuel costs and all operation costs considered, it becomes a money issue," he said, adding the carrier spends an additional $45,000 a month because of the tree-cutting controversy.

During June and July, US Airways averaged 27 passengers on each flight of its 37-seat turboprops at Hilton Head.

In April, the airline denied boarding to about 1,000 passengers because of tree obstructions and irregular weather, he said.

"The business is there, but the frustration is huge. ... Those passengers had to find other travel plans, either through Savannah, Charlotte, Florence or by rental car. And US Airways incurs those costs," Amaxopulos said. "... Delta was in the same predicament. When you look at that scenario, it's not a good model for profitability, and with increased fuel costs these days, the airlines are looking at that with a magnifying glass."

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.

A Delta spokesman said Tuesday the airline does not have Hilton Head on its summer schedule for 2011. The commercial carrier is reducing its fleet of the Saab 340 turboprops that operated from Hilton Head. The airport's runway is too short to accommodate other aircraft in Delta's fleet, the company says.

Amaxopulos was scheduled to speak Monday before Beaufort County Council about the lack of progress on removing tree obstructions from the runway's approach slope, but was involved in a car wreck on Hilton Head on his way to the meeting. He sustained minor injuries.

Plans for tree-cutting have been halted by lawsuits filed by St. James Baptist Church, which alleges loss of property value and quality of life, among other claims.

County Council members Monday questioned whether the county could proceed with tree trimming -- not removal, which the church opposes -- while the legal issues play out. County attorney Lad Howell responded the county's airport consultant and the Federal Aviation Administration have said the trees need to be removed from the approach slope to meet safety standards.

"We are working as much as we can to shore up the timeframe," Howell said.

Both sides have agreed mediation would be fruitless.

"It's a non-negotiable issue, according to the other side," Howell told council Monday. "They say we can trim but not remove trees. We need to remove so as not to have the issue" become a recurring cost and concern, for which the FAA has said it will only pay for one-time funding.

Amaxopulos said the county must also move quickly to extend the runway.

Beaufort County and Hilton Head Island councils jointly approved a 20-year master plan that calls for a two-phased extension of the runway to 5,400 feet, which US Airways supports.

The two-phased extension would require the county to purchase some surrounding property, realign Beach City Road and remove trees.

The FAA has said it will expedite its review of the plan to three to four months as opposed to six months to a year, said county airports director Paul Andres.

The master plan's cost is estimated at more than $50 million. As much as 95 percent could be covered by the FAA, with the county and state splitting the rest.

A contingent of Palmetto Hall and Port Royal Plantation property owners, however, are attempting to persuade county and town officials to accept a shorter runway extension under a "proposal for compromise" presented last month.

They say a 4,720-foot runway would allow commercial turboprop aircraft flying out of Hilton Head to operate at maximum takeoff weight. The shorter-than-approved runway would also satisfy the length needed for 94 percent of the general aviation aircraft identified in the master plan, they say.

Amaxopulos disagrees.

US Airways "would need a runway of 5,400 feet to fly our turboprop aircraft fully loaded, even on hot days," he said. "That would resolve the issues we have at the airport with that type of aircraft. At 5,000 feet, on a typical day, we'd fly at 90 percent."