Beaufort News

Delta suspends service to Hilton Head; said flights won't resume in the spring

Delta Air Lines announced today it will discontinue service to Hilton Head Island Airport effective Nov. 1 due to poor performance of the route.

The airline announced in early September it would suspend service to Hilton Head this winter but resume in early 2011. Delta conducted a similar suspension last year. Delta is now saying service will not resume after Nov. 1.

The airline will continue to serve Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport, where Delta operates daily non-stop flights to its hubs in Atlanta and Detroit, as well as to New York's LaGuardia Airport.

Delta Connection carrier Mesaba Airlines operates four daily flights between Hilton Head and Atlanta on a seasonal basis.

Flights have experienced a significant decline in revenues and passenger loads this year. That, combined with decisions to phase out aging aircraft Delta flies in and out of Hilton Head prompted the decision, said Joe Esposito, Delta's managing director for network planning, in a news release.

"Although Delta would prefer to continue serving the market, we have made the difficult decision to eliminate our Hilton Head Airport service as part of our efforts to retire less-efficient turboprop and small jet aircraft from the Delta Connection fleet," Esposito said in the release.

Delta is phasing out the 34-seat Saab 340 turboprop plane it uses to provide service to Hilton Head. The airport's 4,300-foot runway cannot accommodate any other aircraft in Delta's fleet, said airline spokesman Trebor Banstetter.

The Saab planes can hold 34 passengers, but the airline sells only 21 of those seats because of the weight limit required for the 4,300-foot runway, which airport officials believe is the shortest with commercial service in the continental United States.

Hilton Head is among four regional markets Delta announced it is suspending service to this winter, due to poor performance. The airline is also discontinuing service in Florence, S.C.; Lynchburg, Va; and London, Ontario. Banstetter said Delta will contact customers booked on Hilton Head flights after Nov. 1. Customers wishing to make changes to reservations booked after Nov. 1 can contact Delta Reservations at 1-800-221-1212.

US Airways, the island's other commercial carrier, offers year-round service from Hilton Head to Charlotte and to Washington, D.C.

Delta's plans for its Hilton Head service have changed several times since the airline began flying between its Atlanta hub and the island in March 2007.

The airline suspended service in November 2008, resuming flights in March 2009, and operated the same schedule last year â€" suspending flights in November 2009 and resuming service in March.

The announcement came hours before the Beaufort County and Town of Hilton Head Island councils are to meet to approve a 20-year master plan for the airport that calls for an extension of the runway.

Airport consultant Talber & Bright has said a runway of 5,400 feet is needed to ensure the future of commercial air service on the island.

The current runway and tree obstructions force the airlines to fly fewer passengers, causing customers to wait for later flights during peak season and service to be less profitable in a slow economy, according to the study.

The airlines fly in and out of Hilton Head 60 percent full, on average, well below the industry standard of 78 percent, according to Talbert and Bright.

"Regarding future flights if the runway is extended, we can't comment specifically, but we're always reviewing our schedule for opportunities to establish successful service if customer demand warrants it," Banstetter said.