Private aircraft fees county's call to make

Beaufort County Councilman Rick Caporale called the S.C. Aeronautics Commission's move against private aircraft landing fees at Hilton Head Island Airport a "veiled threat."

There was nothing veiled about it. The state agency doesn't want Beaufort County to charge private pilots to land at the island airport. It threatens to withhold state funding for airport construction projects to get the county to do what it wants.

The county is seeking $66,783 in state funding this year to match about $2.5 million in Federal Aviation Administration grants. It expects to ask the state for about $350,000 for projects over the next five years.

Never mind that the state agency contributes no more than Beaufort County does for these projects -- usually 2.5 percent each. The FAA pays for 95 percent of qualified projects.

The commission also contributes little, if anything, toward operating the airport. The new landing fee, expected to raise about $100,000 a year, would help with that.

Paul Werts, the commission's executive director, said his agency is charted to promote aviation and air commerce. Imposing a landing fee for general aviation would discourage users and hurt the Hilton Head and state economies.

"In South Carolina, pilots and the aviation community already compensate for airport construction with a fuel tax and (other) expenses," he said. "You're mandating a fee on commerce, and the commission has taken a negative view of that."

No airport in South Carolina charges a general aviation landing fee, so whether it would discourage users and hurt the economy isn't known for certain. The commission apparently has no objection to charging landing fees to commercial airlines, which also pay fuel taxes, nor to charging commercial passengers a local ticket surcharge on top of the federal ticket tax.

In an email sent to county officials, Werts describes the motion approved by the commission this way: "If an airport has landing fees or usage fees related to use of the runway, they will be held as negative considerations for eligibility for approval."

Is that an automatic "no" or a negative weighed against other positives? We would hope the latter. If the project to be funded adds to the airport's overall economic viability, saying "no" undercuts the commission's stated mission in order to help private pilots.

The proposal under consideration would set the general aviation landing fee at a minimum of $10 or $1.65 per 1,000 pounds, whichever is greater. The fees would not apply to private aircraft based here and those paying long-term fees, such as permanent tie-downs and hangar rentals.

The county is looking for ways to improve the airport's operating bottom line. The good news is that it's getting better, according to county financial reports.

For fiscal year 2011, the airport reported a net operating loss of $381,727, including $555,056 in depreciation.

In fiscal year 2010, the airport reported a $462,427 loss, including $546,107 in depreciation. The county's general fund contributed $150,000.

In fiscal year 2011, the airport got no money for operations from the general fund, and it reduced the amount owed the general fund by $140,394, from $1,608,534 to $1,468,140. It also reduced the amount owed on long-term debt for hangar construction by $45,410, from $1,639,327 to $1,593,917.

Its net assets improved from $15,246,763 in fiscal year 2010 to $16,096,793 in fiscal year 2011.

But the airport does still owe $3 million to the general fund.

County officials will have to decide whether the upward track is steep enough given the strains on other areas of county operations. How quickly do they want the airport's general fund debt repaid? How certain are they of the airport's major revenue sources?

Do they put at risk federal funding, as well as state funding, by imposing general aviation landing fees? If they do, that would be a deal killer.

In the end, this is a policy decision for Beaufort County, not the S.C. Aeronautics Commission. The county has a lot more skin in this game than the commission does.