Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Heritage Classic Foundation, Hilton Head may be asked to help fund airport tower

With the tower at the Hilton Head Island Airport scheduled to close April 7, Beaufort County might ask the town and the Heritage Classic Foundation for money to keep it operating through the week of the island's annual PGA Tour event.

Although it's unclear how much it would cost to operate the tower after April 7, the county is considering asking several "partners" to help -- among them, the town and the nonprofit group that runs the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing, according to county administrator Gary Kubic.

Although total flight operations at the county-owned airport have steadily fallen, county records indicate that during the past three years, traffic during the month of April has been more than 35 percent higher than the monthly average, as tournament spectators and golfers fly in on private planes.

"It's definitely the busiest week of the year for the airport," said Steve Cucina, operations manager for Signature Flight Support, a contractor that provides fuel and other services at the airport.

County Councilman Steve Baer, who represents part of Hilton Head, estimates the tower costs $10,000 a week to operate. Based on that figure, he believes dividing the cost to keep it open two or three weeks makes sense.

"If Hilton Head and even the Heritage share in the cost, $10,000 divided by three is worthwhile," he said.

Baer and others note that the county forgave more than $30,000 in interest on a $1 million loan to the Heritage Classic Foundation last summer.

So far, Heritage officials have not been approached about the proposal.

"This is the first I've heard of it," Heritage tournament director Steve Wilmot said Tuesday. "This hasn't even been discussed or brought up. I have no idea what would be expected or what the support would even be."

Attempts Tuesday to reach Hilton Head Mayor Drew Laughlin for comment were unsuccessful.

This year's annual PGA Tour event is April 15 to 21 at Harbour Town Golf Links. The tournament generates $72 million in sales each year for Hilton Head businesses.

The Federal Aviation Administration said Friday it will close the 149 contractor-run towers at small airports across the U.S., including Hilton Head's, starting April 7. The cuts are part of the $85 billion federal-budget sequestration.

The airport tower, built in 2005, is staffed 14 hours a day. It lacks a radar, so controllers make visual contact with planes on approach.

Until 2005, the airport operated without a control tower, with one exception: A temporary tower was brought in each year for the Heritage. It wasn't clear Tuesday who paid for it.

Hilton Head's tower is operated by contractor Robinson Aviation, or RVA, which runs 96 airport towers across the U.S. An employee who answered the phone at RVA's Oklahoma City offices Tuesday said the firm had no comment.

Closing the tower will not affect safety or scheduled flights at the airport, the county has said.

The tower could remain closed for reasons other than cost. For instance, it's unclear if a municipality can simply pay for air traffic control services on its own. There also might be union or contractual issues, Kubic said.

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