Airline passengers flying out of the Hilton Head Island Airport could pay more as early as January, pending Federal Aviation Administration approval, according to county airports director Paul Andres.
A recommendation reviewed Thursday at a Beaufort County Airports Board meeting would add $4.50 per ticket to commercial passengers boarding planes at Hilton Head. The money would be used for airport improvements. Most airports across the country charge such a fee, according to county officials and a consultant hired by the county to study the proposal.
The county expects to collect about $225,000 a year, based on current passenger counts.
The fee is expected to cover the county's $900,000 share of work to extend the 4,300-foot runway to 5,400 feet and expand the terminal, airport officials said.
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FEES FOR PRIVATE PILOTS
During the same meeting, officials learned the state's top aviation official objected to a related proposal that would charge private pilots to fly to the airport. Money collected under the proposal would also be used to pay for future construction, including runway lengthening.
The fee is expected to generate more than $100,000 a year.
Paul Werts, executive director of the state's aeronautic commission, sent an email July 15 to Andres stating the fee could also be seen as discriminatory, which could jeopardize state and federal grant money for airport improvements.
"The South Carolina Aeronautics Commission is chartered to promote aviation and air commerce," Werts wrote. "Landing fees (are) a practice that will discourage users and have a direct impact on operations" and hurt the island economy.
Hilton Head would be the first airport in the state to charge such a fee, a minimum of $10 or up to $1.65 per 1,000 pounds, whichever is greater, to private aircraft.
Currently, the airport charges commercial flights a landing fee of $1.31 per 1,000 pounds.
Private aircraft based at the airport that pay fees for permanent tie-downs or that rent a county hangar would be exempt since they already contribute to the airport's operations, board members said.
The fee would apply to aircraft based elsewhere that fly in and out and do not pay the long-term fees.
Some members warned that air traffic at Hilton Head has declined because of the struggling economy and Delta Air Lines' departure last fall. Imposing a landing fee could cause numbers to fall even more, they said.
Neither fee would apply to the Beaufort County Airport on Lady's Island, where there is no commercial service and general aviation traffic is much lighter.
The landing fee doesn't require FAA approval. The board will vote on the landing fee Oct. 20 for recommendation to County Council.
Some airport board members argue not imposing the landing fee would be short-sighted.
"We are in the black, but we're not in the black because we have liabilities. And (we) are embarking on projects requiring the county to come up with substantial sums," said board member and Hilton Head resident Will Dopp.
Airport revenues exceeded operating costs by about $170,000 for the fiscal year ending June 30, according to unaudited numbers. The airport, though, owes the county general fund about $1.5 million on a loan for prior construction projects.
"A $10 fee won't drive someone away," Dopp said.
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead.