Hilton Head, county make right call on airport plan

The decision by Beaufort County Council and Hilton Head Island Town Council to accept a two-phase master plan for the Hilton Head Island Airport sets out a sensible course.

It keeps open the possibility of critical Federal Aviation Administration funding down the road, but doesn't immediately commit to a 5,400-foot runway, with its additional expense and potential disruptions to the community.

The debate over the island airport has been going on for decades. In 2007, when the latest round heated up, we called for the county and town to complete a master plan that put all options on the table. It made no sense to preclude any discussion of lengthening the runway. We said then you can't weigh the costs of potentially shutting down the airport to commercial service if you don't look at the benefits of extending the runway and keeping that service going.

We still maintain the town's decision that year to limit the runway length to 4,300 feet through a zoning change was to ensure a decisive voice in the airport's future. And it did just that.

Now that master plan is done; its recommendations weighed; and a call has been made by the people we elect to do that. It's time to move ahead to the next round of decision-making. There is little to be gained by rehashing the same arguments.

This debate has been very similar to the debate in the late 1980s and early 1990s over whether to build the Cross Island Parkway. It was divisive and heated. But at some point, a decision on whether to build the road had to be made, and the community had to adjust to the reality of that decision. We have come to that point with the airport.

Extending the runway to 5,000 feet within the current confines of airport property should help the viability of US Airways service to the island by lifting some limits on passenger and cargo loads.

Delta's recent decision to halt its Atlanta-to-Hilton Head connection is not surprising, given its announcement that it would stop use of the turboprop plane used to come to Hilton Head and given the general state of the economy. The airline also announced it was stopping service to airports with longer runways than Hilton Head's. And it should be noted that Delta is just one of several airlines that has tried and ultimately given up on a Hilton Head-Atlanta connection.

The next step will be for the town to make the zoning change necessary to allow the runway extension. That process, too, will include public input.

As we move ahead, we can always adjust our plans for the airport, taking into account specific impacts on the surrounding community, federal funding options and changing market conditions.

Do we expect the arguments to end? No. Will we reach an absolute agreement on what to do at the airport? Doubtful. But at some point, decisions must be made.