Residents propose compromise on Hilton Head runway length

The fight to sway public opinion about trees and runway length at the Hilton Head Island Airport continues.

Some residents of Port Royal Plantation and Palmetto Hall say they plan to speak at Monday's Beaufort County Council meeting to advance their "compromise proposal" for a shorter extension of the county-owned airport runway, to 4,720 feet. The runway currently is 4,300 feet long, and the airport master plan calls for eventually extending it to 5,400 feet.

The residents say a 4,720-foot runway would:

  • Allow commercial turboprops to fly out of Hilton Head fully loaded.
  • Serve the needs of 94 percent of general aviation aircraft expected to use the airport.
  • Avoid the need to buy several properties surrounding the airport.
  • Avoid realignment of Beach City Road and removal of a "considerable" number of trees.
  • Save the county millions of dollars.
  • "We are not trying to close the airport. We don't want to chase US Airways out of here," said Port Royal Plantation resident Leo Brennan. "And we are only asking the county not cut those trees that cannot grow into the approach slope within 10 years. What we are trying to accomplish is, modify the master plan so that it does everything the public has been led to believe but on the current airport footprint and at a savings at a time when the county is cutting its budget."

    A group of other island residents plans to speak in support of cutting trees at the airport, work that is being delayed by an ongoing legal challenge from St. James Baptist Church.

    Anne Esposito, a pilot and member of Citizens to Protect the Hilton Head Island Airport, argues the compromise proposal is a waste of time. The Federal Aviation Administration concurred with the master plan on two occasions and said a length shorter than 5,000 feet would result in rapidly diminishing FAA support and the benefits of a shorter length would not justify its cost.

    The FAA is reviewing the master plan. Any change would have to involve the agency, the town and airport users, including Piedmont Airlines, a subsidiary of US Airways whose Dash 8 planes use the airport. The airline told the county in a letter that a 5,400-foot runway and tree removal would permit the island's lone commercial carrier to fly to its Charlotte hub with full passenger and baggage loads. Additional locations, such as Washington, D.C., could also be served with few limitations, according to the letter.

    A US Airways official said last week the airline's frustration is growing as it loses money because of delays in tree-cutting and a short runway.

    "We're very lucky a plane hasn't hit a tree, and that's due to good piloting. US Airways is getting ready to leave because of the trees. We do not have long before they're out of here," Esposito said. "County officials need to get off their duff and get the trees cut. If they (US Airways) go, that will have serious economic ramifications."

    County and town officials say they're willing to listen to the arguments, but some say they're unconvinced they should revisit the 20-year airport master plan they adopted in October.