The Hilton Head Island Airport's terminal is scheduled for an expansion that would include more seating, security areas and restrooms.
The improvements, expected to cost about $1.9 million, would make the airport more convenient to travelers after changes required by the Transportation Security Administration following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to county and airport officials.
The TSA mandated that all U.S. airports screen checked bags starting Dec. 31, 2002. To accommodate TSA security rules, passengers have been cut off from the airport's only bathrooms after they passed beyond a security checkpoint.
"We had to adapt the terminal to the new needs of TSA and the screening areas ... and we just did what we could with the space that we had," said Beaufort County Airports Board Chairman Joe Mazzei.
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The new terminal's design would add restrooms near the gate. A vending area also would be opened beyond the security check.
The Town of Hilton Head Island's Design Review Board will weigh in on the aesthetics of the 4,250-square-foot expansion at 1:15 p.m. today at Town Hall. The plan also will be reviewed Thursday by the Beaufort County Airports Board.
Construction could begin in September, according to the project application submitted to the town design board.
The upgrades are the first of three improvements to the terminal. The second and third phases will address baggage pickup and additional maintenance needs, according to Mazzei. He said construction on those projects is unlikely to begin before 2014.
The Federal Aviation Administration would pay 90 percent of the cost. The state and county would split the remaining 10 percent, for about $95,000 each.
An FAA spokesperson said the agency is still trying to determine if it can grant money for the expansion project amid across-the-board federal budget cuts known as sequestration.
The investment also comes at a time when fewer flights and passengers are using medium- and small-hub airports, according to a recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The declines were mainly the result of higher fuel prices, industry consolidation and a new focus on profitability over market share in the past five years, experts said.
The Hilton Head airport's departures were down 28 percent between 2007 and 2012, and 41 percent fewer seats were filled during that time, the study said.
Mazzei attributes part of that decline to Delta Airlines leaving the airport in 2010 after discontinuing use of its turbo prop planes. After the runway is lengthened to 5,000 feet -- a project delayed by an archeological dig but that could begin in 2014 -- the airport will be able to accommodate larger planes and serve customers who now fly to Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport, Mazzei said.
However, the Savannah airport also is experiencing less flight traffic, according to the MIT study. Departures dropped by 18 percent between 2007 and 2012. Filled seats declined by 23 percent over the same period.