Safety Concerns Drive Airport Improvements
December 30, 2013
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  • Outside, work to bring the two taxiways – one on either side of the runway – into compliance with Federal Aviation Administration requirements will wrap up the first half of Phase One of an extensive updating planned for the four and a half decade old facility.
    As soon as the first half of Phase One is finished expected to take a year, Beaufort County will undertake the second half – the extension of the present 4,300 foot runway by 700 feet to 5,000 feet. The south end will be extended by 300 feet, the north end by 400 feet.
    As part of the runway work, an emergency runover stretch will be built at the end of the runway to stop a plane that might otherwise go off the pavement. It is something akin to truck runaway ramps on steep slopes of highways, but will be part of the runway rather than run off of it. A plane’s wheels will sink into the surface and that will slow it while not damaging the body of the aircraft.
    The improvements were authorized by a resolution passed at a joint meeting of the Beaufort County Council and the Hilton Head Island Town Council on Oct. 27, 2010, and are just now being brought to fruition.
    There is a Phase Two in a consultant’s master plan for improvements to the airport that proposes to extend the runway another 400 feet to 5,400 feet. However, neither the County Council nor the Hilton Head Town Council has approved that. Hilton Head Mayor Drew Laughlin said he, for one, would not support an extension to 5,400 feet. “My position has been that
    I don’t support any further extension” beyond the presently approved 5,000 feet.
    “I don’t see the benefi for the cost, and I’m concerned about the impact on neighboring areas.”
    Those neighbors include St. James Baptist Church, located at the north end of the runway at the corner of Beach City Road and Fish Haul Road, which has lived uneasily with the airport since it was built in 1967-68.
    They also include residents living near the church, residents of Palmetto Hall Plantation off Beach City Road west of the airport, and businesses on both sides of the airport off Beach City Road on the west and Dillon Road on the east.
    County Administrator Gary Kubic said the improvements in both parts of Phase One, taken together, will create an atmosphere that is more conducive to encouraging economic development, increasing tourism, facilitating more corporate air traffic – and to bringing in additional commercial flights But most importantly, he said, it will improve safety.
    “Ultimately, the airport has to be safe,” he explained. “It’s all about safety. That’s why the trees had to come down. If we are operating an airport, we are duty bound to do it safely. That’s why the trees issue is so critical.”
    Kubic was referring to the controversial clear cutting and topping of trees in a swath of land at the north end of the runway, undertaken at the behest of the FAA to make a clearer path for airplanes approaching the airport for a landing.
    Kubic said maintaining a modern and efficient airport also was important to the safety of Hilton Head Island in case its one “driveway,” as he called the single bridge to the island, which comes from Bluffton, should be put out of service by a bad storm. That, he noted, would leave the island accessible only by boat – if not for the airport.
    The airport provides a second means of access for people to leave the island in advance of a storm and for rescuers and their equipment to get in for the recovery after a storm, he said, should the bridge be closed.
    The county went out to bid on the firs half of Phase One work in October and received seven proposals in response in early November. They had to be evaluated and Jonathan P. Rembold, the new Beaufort County Airports director, hopes to be able to make a recommendation on the contractor to hire early in January to the Finance Committee of the County Council, which must approve the winning bid or bids before they go to the County Council for final approval.
    “If we can qualify a contractor,” he said, “hopefully construction can begin in early 2014.”
    Rembold said the county’s estimated cost for doing the taxiways is $3,745,000, with the FAA picking up the tab for $3,370,000, or 90 percent of the total. The terminal improvements similarly will cost $3.7 million, with the FAA picking up $3.3 million, or 90 percent of the total, he said. The state and Beaufort County will share in picking up the 10 percent balance of the cost.
    The grant applications have all been approved by the FAA, he added.
    “In the past the FAA covered about 95 percent of a project,” Rembold said. “They are at 90 percent now because of sequestration” in federal spending.
    Rob McFee, director of engineering and infrastructure for Beaufort County, in whose purview the county’s two airports fall (the other one is the Beaufort County Airport on Lady’s Island, affectionately known as Frogmore for the neighborhood it is in), said the Hilton Head Island Airport brings in enough income to pay its operating expenses. It does receive some financia support from the county, however, for capital projects, most recently to build some hangars, he said.
    Financial figu es provided by Beaufort County for the past 10 years from 2003 to 2013, which Hilton Head Monthly requested, show that the airport took the money it received from the county for capital improvements as loans to be paid back. Three loans were advanced during that time.
    Alicia Holland, chief financial officer for the county, said the first loan, in the amount of $1,041,428, was made in 2003 to purchase about 10 acres of land from Thomas Heyward Sr. in 2000. She said it was an interest bearing loan which was repaid in fiv yearly installments until paid in full in 2008.
    A second loan, in the amount of $1,800,000, that was advanced in 2008 for hangars at the airport, also was interest bearing, according to Holland. She said payments have been made on it yearly and it is due to be paid in full in 2032.
    The amount of the payments on that loan began at $37,226 in 2008 and have increased each year up to $47,725 in 2013, according to the data.
    Holland said a third loan, in the amount of $2,080,289, was advanced in 2007 for several capital projects at the airport including the air traffic control tower. She said it is not interest bearing and does not have a definit due date.
    “Beginning in FY2011 the Hilton Head Island Airport has been aggressive in paying this money back to the general fund,” she said.
    Its latest payment, in 2013 was $281,463. The airport currently owes the general fund a balance of $1,546,192 on the 2008 loan and $1,050,985 on the 2007 loan, for a total of $2,597,177.
    A master plan for the airport expansion prepared by Talbert & Bright, Inc., airport engineering consultants of Charlotte, N.C., recommended the county consider raising the passenger facility charge (PFC) at the airport on tickets to help pay for the current improvements or to reimburse itself for past PFC-eligible projects.
    Asked if that is being considered, McFee said the county always is reviewing the fee with an eye towards a possible increase or decrease and that, yes, the county would consider an increase if it felt one was needed.
    Like Kubic, he stressed the improvements at the airport were aimed at buttressing its safety. He said they also should make it a more efficient facility.
    Asked how much further down the line construction on the extension of the runway to 5,000 feet would begin after the first half of Phase One with the terminal and taxiways is done, he replied: “Not much further down the line.”
    Rembold, speaking while only four weeks into his new job as airports director, said the expansion and modernization of the terminal also was aimed at better serving the clientele using it and making them more comfortable.
    In addition to providing a roomier waiting room with restrooms – the restrooms now are outside the security area and inaccessible to passengers once they go though the security line – he hopes to bring in a snack bar, a small bar and possibly a gift shop.
    In overhearing passengers’ comments at the airport, he said he has come to understand they would like to have something different than vending machines.
    ”That is an item we need to put out to bid,” he said. “We’ve done that fairly recently and we didn’t have a very good response.”
    McFee said that occurred within the last five years and the county got no interest and received no proposals.
    “What I hope,” Rembold said, “is that after the renovations, when everything is cleaned up and looks real nice and new, that we have some more interest in that. One of my goals is to increase that level of service for our clients.”
    The number of passengers using Hilton Head Island Airport has declined in recent years. Over the last decade of actual figu es in the master plan, which was submitted to the county in 2010, it went from a high of 103,028 departing passengers in 1999 to 66,823 in 2009 the final year, a drop of 35 percent.
    In the intervening years they fluctu ted a little with 94,247 in 2000, 84,812 in 2001, 75,209 in 2002, 64,099 in 2003, 61,419 in 2004, 66,679 in 2005, 64,132 in 2006, 76,599 2007 and 71,003 in 2008.
    The master plan predicted the number of departing passengers would increase as the economy improves and forecast 77,908 in 2019 and 84,094 in 2029.
    A more bullish outlook put forth in the FAA Terminal Area Forecast predicted departing passengers would increase to 96,534 in 2019 and to 132,903 in 2029.
    Both Rembold and McFee expect airport usage to increase with the improvements. “That certainly is our hope,” McFee said.
    Kubic, the county administrator, also sees the likelihood that the airport could move to being served by two commercial airlines instead of one.
    US Airways is the sole commercial carrier now flying out of the airport. Delta Air Lines formerly served the Hilton Head Island Airport but pulled out in November 2010.
    “Hilton Head is a global destination,” Kubic said, and should be of interest to other airlines.
    To explore the issue of what additional airlines might be attracted to serve the Hilton Head Airport after the current improvements are completed and the runway is extended, the County Council appointed a subcommittee of the Beaufort County Airports Board to look into the possibilities.
    The subcommittee is headed by Al Spain, an aviation veteran. Spain flew fied wing aircraft in Vietnam for the Army. After his service, he worked in both corporate aviation and general aviation, rising to vice president of Operations for Continental Airlines and becoming one of the founders of JetBlue.
    After a career that had him living all around the world, he retired in 2006 and moved to Hilton Head Island, where the county tapped him for its airports board.
    Spain said the subcommittee is trying to focus on “what’s happening out there in the industry,” particularly since the merger of Continental Airlines with United Airlines and with the recent merger of American Airlines with US Airways.
    It began by considering whether US Airways service at Hilton Head Island Airport would survive after that airline’s merger with American. Spain said, however, he believed it unlikely that service will be discontinued. He explained that while the merged airline is operating under the name American, the CEO of the merged company is Doug Parker, who comes from US Airways.
    When an airline pulls out of a market, he continued, sometimes another airline steps in. He cited the example of Delta Air Lines pulling out of Hattiesburg, Miss., and a new airline named Silver stepped in. He said Silver has filled vacancies in other markets as well, after an established airline has left.
    “We found there were some airlines like Silver that pick up of the slack, “ he said, adding, “Silver has turboprops,” the aircraft used at Hilton Head Airport.
    Spain said the question now is what impact JetBlue’s arrival at the Savannah Airport is going to have on other airlines there. He expects Delta is going to compete on service going to New York and Boston and United “is not going to sit around and do nothing.” He said United, which has turboprops, might come into Hilton Head Island and noted the number one market out of Hilton Head is New York. JetBlue, he pointed out, doesn’t have any turboprops and Delta, which formerly served Hilton Head Island, no longer operates turboprops.
    “What one airline does triggers what other airlines do in response,” he said.
    “I would like to look into a crystal ball” and predict what the airlines are going to do, he added, “but it’s cloudy.”
    County Councilman Stu Rodman, the council’s liaison to the airports board, believes Delta will eventually return to Hilton Head Island Airport after the runway is lengthened – to what length he did not specify. He, however, advocates extending the runway beyond the presently-approved 5,000 feet – if not by 400 feet to the full 5,400 feet proposed in the master plan, at least by 100 feet or 200 feet – as long as it can be contained on the airport’s 175 acre site without necessitating the relocation of Beach City Road to the west.
    The master plan calls for moving the road if the runway is extended to 5,400 feet.
    Rodman said Delta historically has been an all-jet airline. But when it acquired Northwest Airlines, it got some turboprops in the deal and began service to Hilton Head Island, he continued. Then, he said, Delta phased out the turboprops, leading to its departure from the Hilton Head Island Airport.
    “I fully expect they will re-enter the market when the runway is long enough to accommodate their fleet ” he said.
    Rodman said the consultants who prepared the master plan are still under contract to the county for further discussions on extending the runway’s length.
    “The length of runway required for commercial planes is still an open question,” he asserted.
    Rodman noted that small passenger jets that can fly 1,500 or 2,000 miles with a full load of fuel would require more than 5,000 feet of runway. But with a lighter load of fuel and flying a shorter distance to nearby regional hubs, he reasoned, they could operate on a shorter runway.
    “The key is not how long of a runway is needed to fly to Denver or Washington, but how long is needed to fly to Atlanta or Charlotte,” he said.
    Rodman said if commercial service could be improved, and when the terminal renovations are completed, more people could be attracted into flying into Hilton Head Island who now drive to town or fly in via the Savannah airport or, perhaps had previously felt it was too far away to go. That in turn, he said, will bring in more tourism dollars and add more income to the town and county.
    That would be the hope of Bill Miles, president and CEO of the Hilton Head Island- Bluffton Chamber of Commerce.
    “Commercially viable air service to Hilton Head Island has a very positive effect on our area’s number one economic driver of tourism,” Miles said. “The Hilton Head airport is the first impression that air travelers have of our destination and ensuring that it exceeds today’s travelers’ expectations is important.
    Rodman also said the present plan to increase the runway to 5,000 feet probably will result in an increase in general aviation – private plane – traffic.
    That, he said, could make Hilton Head Island more attractive for businesses to locate on it. He said it also would bring in more corporate hospitality flights when companies bring in their executives or clients for a day or weekend of golf or to attend events like the RBC Heritage golf tournament.
    “You would not have a Heritage if you didn’t have an airport,” he claimed.
    Ron Smetek, a member of the county Airports Board and a retired Air Force office, argues that extending the runway at all is a waste of taxpayers’ money.
    He doesn’t see that extending the runway to 5,000 feet is going to help commercial planes. He contends it will help only private general aviation aircraft.
    Smetek served as a navigator and electronics warfare officer in the Air Force where, he said, he assisted the pilot with a lot of functions like a co-pilot would. He currently works for the National Geospacial Intelligence Agency, a federal government outfit which makes maps.
    “In so far as extending the runway is going to cost the county, state and federal government a lot of money, I question the value of doing that because it’s not going to help” commercial aviation, Smetek said. “Regional jets are much more expensive to operate and need 6,000 feet, and the next generation of turboprops — the Q-400 — can fly in and out with more passengers on a shorter runway” than even Hilton Head Island’s present 4,300 foot runway.
    Smetek said at least the runway can be kept on existing airport property if extended only to 5,000 feet whereas extending it to 5,400 would require the relocation of Beach City Road. But, he maintained, extending it to 5,000 feet will benefit only a small percentage of private aircraft owners and none of the commercial carriers.
    “That begs the question of who are we doing this for,” he said. “We’re not doing it for the people flying into Hilton Head Island” on commercial flights.
    Rembold, the airports director and an engineer, who is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and served as a Marine office, was asked what the end goal was with the improvements that will be made at the airport in Phase One.
    “The end goal is to be able to make sure that we can continue with a viable passenger terminal,” he replied. “With an aging flee of aircraft, you can never necessarily count on having what you have there today. So we have to look to the future and make sure that we are an operational airport — number one — on the passenger side, and that we’re attractive to the airlines.
    “We have to compete for business,” he pointed out.
    “So our end goal,” Rembold continued, “is to make sure that our airport continues to serve Hilton Head and the rest of the region as it does, and to increase the level of service that we provide. I just want folks who spend all that planning time to come to Hilton Head to really enjoy it. I want them to be impressed by the airport I want it to be a facility that serves them well.
    “I want it to be as convenient as some other airports they use,” he said. “If that means we have to figu e out a way to get a good snack bar, maybe a gift shop, and a small bar, something like that, well, then we’ll see what we can do.”