Expansion at Hilton Head Airport puts strain on its facilities

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The terminal at Hilton Head Airport seems calm on a recent morning. While the new airlines are welcomed, additional passengers catching additional flights are causing strain on the facility. DEAN ROWLAND

It's amazing how much of an impact a 700-foot runway extension has had on Hilton Head Island airport and the island. More airlines, bigger jets, more direct flights, more passengers and more money into the local economy.

The big boys in the sky - American, Delta and United - have come to town in a big way: They've all announced plans to renew or expand their operations here. Propeller planes, which once were the only option of getting to and from here and there, are relics that served their purpose for decades.

Prop planes' last day on the job in Hilton Head was July 4, 2018, the day before the jets arrived. The runway expansion from 4,300 feet to 5,000 was completed last June after nine years of planning.

The cost of the project was $22 million; the Federal Aviation Administration paid 90 percent of the bill, and the South Carolina Aeronautics Commission and the airport split the remainder.

"American was able to transition to jet service last summer and that was a big boost," said Jon Rembold, Beaufort County airports director. "Shortly thereafter, United said, 'We're going to come', and Delta as well. By Memorial Day, we'll have all three of the network carriers on a regular weekday, doing eight daily nonstop flights serving different destinations. We've gone from a one-airline, one-city airport prop service to three-airline and seven-city airports jet service."

The one airline 10 months ago? Delta. The one city? Charlotte, N.C.

United now offers nonstop flights to and from Washington Dulles, Chicago O'Hare and New York/Newark International.

Delta will run three daily flights between Hilton Head and Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson beginning later this month and then Saturday-only flights to New York/LaGuardia in early June.

American provides service to Charlotte Douglas and recently added direct flights to Reagan National in Washington D.C.

More jet flights and airlines mean more passengers.

"Our last year of turboprop service had 27,000 deplanements (passengers getting off)," Rembold said. "I would not be surprised at all to see four times that amount in 2019."

More passengers coming to island also means they'll be spending money during their stay.

"Before we started jet service and were just operating turbo props, the airport had an annual economic impact of $166 million," said Rembold, who became director in 2013. "That number is going to grow leaps and bounds. We'll see a massive spike in 2019. It's huge for the island and the region."

In March of this year, 9,827 passengers boarded and deplaned at the airport. A year earlier, that number was 5,320.

The terminal, which was built in 1995, might be the only blemish in the successful silver lining of growth at the airport.

Having more traffic and more passengers has "put a strain on the terminal," Rumbold said. "The terminal is equipped to deal with it right now short term but not long term," he said. "We're working on efficiency issues inside the terminal for the short term."

One of those issues is the location of restroom facilities for passengers who have passed through the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) check-point. At press time, the only facilities available to those passengers are portable toilets located outside the terminal.

Rembold added that the terminal expansion and renovation is at the top of the priority to-do list. But before any hammer hits a nail or a wall is knocked down, he has to get approvals from the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration, car rental agencies, concessionaires, the three airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration.

The town and county are back-seat drivers on the terminal project.

Rembold, who said he's in constant contact with the major carriers, remains confident that the friendly skies above the island will be even friendlier in the future.

Lowcountry resident Dean Rowland is a veteran senior editor and freelance writer.

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