County should think twice about year-round tower

Hilton Head Island Airport's tower.
Hilton Head Island Airport's tower. Staff photo

Reassurances from Beaufort County officials that the Hilton Head Island Airport will remain safe even after its control tower closes can cut both ways.

If that's the case, it's hard to justify spending the money to keep it operating year-round even if federal funding returns or the county decides to pay for it.

The Federal Aviation Administration is cutting funding for 149 contractor-run control towers across the country as part of $85 billion in federal budget cuts. It's not hard to see why Hilton Head's tower fell to the budget ax.

Airport supporters had long pushed for a year-round control tower before it opened in April 2004. Before tthat, pilots coming and going around the airport communicated using a common radio frequency. Even today, the tower has no radar.

But traffic at the airport has fallen off dramatically in recent years. The airport had about 35,000 incoming and outgoing flights last year, compared with 74,000 in 2002, according to county records.

The week of the PGA Tour event at Harbour Town Golf Links is the exception. Private plane traffic for the Heritage golf tournament warranted a temporary tower even before the permanent tower was built. Controllers from Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport would travel to the island to help with tournament air traffic.

County records show that during the past three years, plane traffic during the month of April has been more than 35 percent higher than the monthly average.

That makes even more welcome the news that Hilton Head's tower will stay open until May 5. The RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing will be April 15-21.

County officials had been looking for a way to pay for tower operations during the two or three weeks around the Heritage. Councilman Steve Baer estimated the cost at $10,000 a week.

The FAA's keeping the tower open until May says the agency recognizes the need for a tower during the tournament.

Certainly, it gives the county more time to explore what it can do moving ahead. County administrator Gary Kubic says he is trying to find out whether a local government can pay for tower operations. He notes there also might be union or contractual issues. Hilton Head's tower, which is owned by the county, has been operated by private contractor Robinson Aviation, which staffs the tower 14 hours a day.

But even if the answer is yes, County Council should not jump at it. Going back to the old system of a temporary tower during the Heritage might be the best course, at least until air traffic picks back up to pre-recession levels.