July 31, 2008

Heated Debate Foreseen at Meeting for Hilton Head Island Airport

By Tim Donnelly, The Island Packet, Hilton Head Island, S.C.

Jul. 31--The debate over the Hilton Head Island Airport didn't need stoking, but it just got hotter.

With the news Tuesday that Delta Air Lines is pulling out of the airport until at least next spring, discussions over several key topics will take on a new tone as officials gather today for another meeting to hash out lingering issues.

Several Aviation Advisory Board members and airport supporters in the general public have warned that the airport could lose commercial service, saying the county dragged its feet on addressing overgrown trees and planning for the facility's future. While US Airways Express says it has no plans to change its service on Hilton Head, some see the Delta announcement as a bad omen.

County administrator Gary Kubic said some debate over the airport will never go away, but the move by Delta highlights the need to address major questions about the airport's future. Those answers will come from the master plan update that is under way. The master plan addresses the feasibility and effects of extending the runway, among other airport issues.

"As long as there are homes next to the airport, you will have debate; the debate will continue forever," Kubic said. "We need to get answers to outstanding issues."

Delta said the island's 4,300-foot runway can't accommodate other planes in its fleet. The company is retiring the ATR planes it now uses at the airport. Service may return in the spring if the airline finds a suitable replacement plane it can land on Hilton Head.

Another contentious issue likely to gain new traction today is the proposed restructuring of the aviation board, which advises the Beaufort County Council. Board members are pushing for a more technical group made up of members with experience in aviation, engineering, public relations, land planning and finance. The proposal would eliminate citizen representation.

The change would allow the board to focus on the airport's needs and ensuring commercial service, instead of wrangling over political issues, proponents say.

County Councilman Rick Caporale of Hilton Head, the council's liaison to the board, submitted his own proposal that would keep the community representatives, to balance both aviation and non-aviation interests. His recommendations called for more communication with the council.

After a meeting last week, the council's Public Service Committee asked Caporale to come up with a compromise between the two proposals, he said last week.

The other lingering issue is the airport's financial status.

Airport and county officials have been trying to clarify the county's financial data to figure out where airport finances stand and how much money the airport is making.

Councilman Stu Rodman said he will present the findings today of his own study on that data from the last five years. Rodman said his numbers differ from those the county has presented.

Kubic said the Delta announcement shows the need to stop worrying about smaller things like who has fee-setting power for the airport, and start worrying about things like competing with the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport.

The advisory board "has to quit arguing about nickel-and-dime things, in my opinion, and get on with the mega-

issues," he said.


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Copyright (c) 2008, The Island Packet, Hilton Head Island, S.C.

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