Change is constant at Hilton Head Island Airport these days. Heads up. More is in store.

Airport officials are powering up for final phases of a multi-year plan to expand, upgrade and market the 54-year-old airport. The ambitious project already has:

  • Expanded the runway by 700 feet – to 5,000 feet – in a move that fueled additional commercial and general aviation jet traffic.
  • Trimmed trees and removed buildings in the flight path around the airport’s 175-acre site.
  • Relocated and widened taxiway areas to meet current FAA design standards.
  • Added strategic runway “runoff” safety areas — similar to those for trucks on mountain highways — to catch and secure aircraft struggling to land or take off. The concrete slabs are designed to safely slow airplanes that plow into the lightweight, crushable concrete. “It’s an amazing safety feature,” Jon Rembold, airports director for Beaufort County, says of the arrestor bed system.

“It offers 100 percent success, thus far, and 100 percent no-injury results.”

Improvements during the past half-decade came despite Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and the ongoing COVID pandemic.

Now, the airport is lining up the rest of the job. At the top of the list is an overhaul and expansion of the terminal built in 1995.

The terminal project is expected to triple the size of the existing facility to a total of roughly 55,000 square feet, Rembold said. The job is “part function, part form,” he said. “It’s a delicate balance.”

The building will be engineered to ease passenger flow through the expanded terminal. When completed, arriving and departing passengers will be able to move ever-forward — “in a consistent flow,” said Rembold — through the terminal, gates and two security lanes.

The streamlined design will create “checkpoints, not chokepoints,” he said. Three jet bridges will be heated, air conditioned and covered so passengers need not be exposed to the elements when they enter or exit a spacious holding area.

The design calls for colors and other touches to capture the “distinct character” of the island town.

“The look needs to say ‘Hilton Head Island,’” Rembold said. An example: The building’s green tin roof is being replaced by a softer, white-blue roof.

“It looks like a Hilton Head clubhouse,” said Rembold.

Plans for indoors include displays of island culture, history and heritage. The upgrades and expansion are responses to Hilton Head’s growing popularity with business and vacation travelers, as well as commercial airlines and permanent residents.

Back in the day, the airport served only one commercial airline and only one daily destination: Charlotte, N.C.

Three carriers now are regulars: American, United and Delta. The U.S destinations served are Charlotte, Atlanta, Washington Dulles, Chicago O’Hare, Dallas-Fort Worth, Philadelphia, Washington Reagan, Newark, New York LaGuardia and Boston.

In addition, United said it will expand seasonal service beginning May 27 for six Midwest metropolitan areas: Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and St. Louis.

Hilton Head Mayor John McCann called the expansion a “wow moment.” Bill Miles, president of the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce, said United’s beefed-up presence represents a “true economic development moment.”

United’s CRJ-550 aircraft — with 50 seats in two cabins — are expected to be available for many of the Midwest flights. The planes offer 10 first class seats, 20 economy plus seats and 20 standard economy seats.

Passenger volume has shown remarkable growth, even with the pandemic. Rembold said the airport reported 54,000 passengers in 2017; then 79,000 in 2018; and 233,000 in 2019. The pandemic trimmed traffic to 158,000 last year, but has been picking up in recent months.

“I can see us beating 233,000 this year,” said Rembold.

Airport upgrades add to Hilton Head’s reputation as a place to live, visit and do business, said Steve Birdwell, president of the Sea Pines Resort for 15 years.

“It’s a better reflection on the community and it’s going to benefit real estate sales,” he said, adding that a convenient, accessible airport offering multiple destinations is “a great opportunity.”

Hilton Head Councilman David Ames — a pilot who has served on town and county aviation advisory panels — said the airport’s evolution is important to the community’s purpose and sense of place.

“When people fly into Hilton Head, it’s important to send the message that the community is special and memorable,” he said.

The airport is owned by Beaufort County, but is not supported by county taxes. In addition to state and federal financial support, airport operations and upgrades are covered by parking fees, fuel sales, on-site advertising and fees charged airlines, rental car companies and private hangar owners.

The price tag for remaining improvements is estimated at $50 million, Rembold said. From start to completion, work on the terminal is expected to take some three years.