More direct flights are coming to Hilton Head airport. Here’s where they’ll take you
The silence is deafening.
Hilton Head Island Airport now offers daily jet service to Charlotte, with announcements last week of more flights to come: to New York, Chicago, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.
These are not the turboprop planes with special windows for passengers to help by flapping their arms. These are actual 76-passenger jets, with names like American, Delta and United.
When the first American Eagle flight from Charlotte — dare I say, quietly — arrived in July, the Embraer ERJ-175 jet eased to a halt beneath celebratory arched water streams from fire trucks.
The new jet service is a result of runway extension to 5,000 feet.
It also comes after decades of fighting over the growing airport. So why has this new era arrived so quietly? And what do we do next?
The abridged history of the Hilton Head Island Airport would make “War and Peace” look like a comic book.
Some people want it, and some people don’t, largely depending on where they live.
But most of the fight, by now, is in the rearview mirror.
Long gone is the day that the minds behind fledgling developments called Sea Pines and Port Royal Plantation duked it out to have the airport on their land to bring in new customers and conventions. A mile-long strip was cleared in Sea Pines, and a grass air strip was in place in the Grasslawn area by Port Royal Plantation. A move to put the airport on hunt club land now known as Palmetto Dunes almost became a reality.
The Port Royal developer “won” by giving the land for today’s airport on the north end of the island. It opened in the mid-1960s. He later regretted it and said the airport should be on the mainland.
By the early 1970s, commercial air service to Atlanta arrived in the form of a 15- to 17-passenger Beechcraft 99. It could take off with full capacity after the “clearing of Hilton Head Island airstrip overruns,” the Packet reported.
All along, there was hollering against it, but airlines with names like Eastern Atlantis Express, Henson Piedmont, Air South, US Airways and Delta Connection came to call.
A small terminal people called “the Tiki Hut” was built. And when the PGA Tour golf tournament and women’s professional tennis tournament came to Sea Pines each spring, the place was so busy the FAA would set up a temporary “air traffic control tower” that looked like a small tool shed on short stilts.
The county and town governments passed restrictions on runway expansion. In 1993, the County Council chairman said the long-term plan should be to move airport to the mainland.
But in 1995, a new terminal was opened to replace the Tiki Hut. The county administrator in charge of the job said it was long overdue. “What we have now can’t even be termed as quaint,” he said.
By 2010, the County Council and Town Council jointly addressed the push and pull at the airport by adopting a 20-year master plan that included runway expansion from 4,300 feet to 5,000 feet in Phase I and up to 5,400 feet in Phase II.
The first part could be done without the forced displacement of St. James Baptist Church, a Gullah congregation near the runway. And it could keep commercial service alive by enabling the regional jets to land, they reasoned.
Phase I has happened, but not without a fight. People argued for years over cutting trees for safety reasons, as demanded by the FAA.
So when the new jets arrived, I expected an deafening uproar. People would chain themselves to trees, I thought, but then I remembered there were no trees left.
So far, I haven’t heard it.
But going forward, the county should do two things with its island airport.
It should remodel the “new” terminal before it becomes Tiki Hut II. Many believe it’s already there. And it’s certainly not capable of handling the demands of the larger planes.
The late John Curry, a Hall of Fame community leader who pushed the airport and the island’s tourism industry, said when the new terminal opened: “We have strived to give a first-class image (of Hilton Head) to the world.”
Now, pushing a quarter of a century later, we need to strive again. It won’t be as hard to fix what we’ve got, but remember that it took six years of planning and arguing to get the current terminal built.
Secondly, the county and town need to revisit the 2010 master plan. See how things shake out with the 5,000-foot runway. Then stash away that Phase II expansion that would require rerouting a part of Beach City Road, among other things.
Listen to generation after generation of islanders. They have given the airport’s “War and Peace” history the perfect ending: Enough is enough.