Airline officials deny any plans to leave Hilton Head airport

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Airline officials deny any plans to leave Hilton Head airport

By TOM BARTON
tbarton@islandpacket.com
843-706-8169
Published Monday, May 23, 2011   |  743 Words  |  

A Piedmont Airline official is disputing comments made earlier this month by a US Airways station manager who said Hilton Head Island's lone commercial carrier was on the verge of pulling out.

Station manager Alex Amaxopulos told The Island Packet on May 10 that US Airway's frustration was growing as it lost money to delays in tree-cutting and a short runway, and that the county-owned airport was in the airline's "cross-hairs."

Piedmont CEO Stephen Farrow said Amaxopulos may have gotten ahead of himself and was not authorized to make such statements, according to notes released Monday of a conference call he and Gary Blevins, manager of flight operations, had Friday with Beaufort County and Town of Hilton Head Island officials.

Farrow said the company has no intention of stopping service to the island, according to town manager Steve Riley.

Piedmont is a wholly owned subsidiary of US Airways Group Inc. and is one of 10 airlines doing business as US Airways Express.

The airline officials reiterated in the conference call that cutting trees on airport property at the north end of the runway remains its No. 1 issue. Farrow told county and town officials the trees pose a hazard and hinder the company's operations.

The tree work is being delayed by an ongoing legal challenge by St. James Baptist Church. Members of the historic native-island congregation say they are in favor of tree trimming, but not tree removal, which they argue would destroy a natural sound barrier and buffer for the church and neighboring properties. The church's lawsuits come with a stay to prevent tree work.

County Council voted 8-3 on Monday to reaffirm its commitment to removing the trees. Steve Baer, Rick Caporale and Laura Von Harten dissented.

County attorneys Lad Howell and Joshua Gruber told council the quickest way to proceed is filing a motion requesting a judge to lift the stay on the tree work. A majority of the council agreed.

"Public safety is at risk," said County Council Chairman Weston Newton.

Baer and other county council members questioned whether it would be better to pursue with trimming, as opposed to removal.

Howell dismissed the idea, saying the county would have to apply for another permit from the town, which would be subject to another legal challenge.

"We'd be back in the same legal merry-go-round," he said.

RUNWAY LENGTH DISPUTED

In Friday's conference call, Farrow also disputed comments by Amaxopulos and others that the airline needs a 5,400-foot runway to fly its planes fully loaded out of Hilton Head. Farrow told officials the airline has no official position regarding future runway length.

However, a letter to the county from Blevins dated Oct. 14 states a 5,400-foot runway combined with tree removal would allow Piedmont to fly with full passenger and baggage loads to its Charlotte hub. That length would also allow Piedmont to serve additional locations such as Washington, D.C., with few limitations.

Farrow also dispelled rumors that the airline would follow Delta, which discontinued service to the airport Nov. 1. Delta cited the route's poor performance, in reducing its fleet of turboprops that operate from Hilton Head. Farrow said US Airways' Dash 8 turboprops "will be in use for a long time," and current fuel costs make the planes even more attractive than regional jets, according to Riley.

A contingent of residents of Port Royal Plantation and Palmetto Hall used Farrow's comments to bolster arguments Monday before the County Council to advance their "compromise proposal" for a shorter runway extension, to 4,720 feet. The runway is currently 4,300 feet long, and the airport master plan calls for eventually extending it to 5,400 feet.

They say a 4,720-foot runway would allow commercial turboprops to fly out of Hilton Head fully loaded, avoid the need to buy properties around the airport, avoid realignment of Beach City Road and save the county millions of dollars.

The residents said they wanted the continued, safe commercial and private operation of aircraft at the airport, but with less cost and harm to surrounding properties, including St. James Baptist Church.

Another group of island residents, including Town Council members, implored the county to proceed with tree work and implementation of the master plan to ensure flight safety and viable commercial air service.