County airport board postpones vote on Hilton Head landing fee

The Beaufort County Airports Board postponed a vote Thursday on whether to recommend charging private pilots flying into the Hilton Head Island Airport. The county will first try to secure more money from the company that provides flight support to general aviation aircraft.

The board tabled the topic until Nov. 17 after a representative of Signature Flight Support opposed the landing fee and said the company would be willing to re-evaluate its agreement with the county.

"We are willing to sit down with airport officials and find alternatives to give more money back to the county and have the airport successful and less burdensome to the county," said Byron Gray, regional vice president for Signature.

General aviation at the airport accounts for more than 70 percent of traffic but pays less than 25 percent of expenses, largely because of the amount of money it receives from Signature, county airports manager Paul Andres said.

Beaufort County receives 3 percent of all revenue Signature collects from fees charged to private pilots, including fuel sales.

Air traffic at Hilton Head has declined because of the struggling economy and Delta Air Lines' departure last fall.

"This airport has constraints with a 4,300-foot runway, and Savannah is taking business away from Hilton Head," Gray said. "Imposing a landing fee will continue to drive away business from the airport. ... Landing fees may be appropriate at some point in time, but not now."

The Hilton Head airport would be the first in the state to charge such a fee, set at a minimum of $10 or up to $1.65 per 1,000 pounds to private aircraft.

The airport charges commercial flights a landing fee of $1.31 per 1,000 pounds, as well as firefighting fees, which pay for operating costs.

"I don't think any of us are saying 'never collect a landing fee,' " said board chairman Joe Mazzei. "We all want to see the economics of the airport on sure footing and build the runway to the extent laid out in the airport's master plan, and I think we can take a month to better consider the topic."

The fee, expected to generate about $100,000 a year, was proposed to make the airport more self-sufficient. The airport operated in the black for the 2011-2011 fiscal year, but when $555,056 in depreciation is included, it reports a $381,727 loss.

The airport's cash flow has been positive during the past 10 years, and its net worth has increased $6 million over the same period to $16 million.

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead.

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