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No holding pattern for fast-growing airport
Savannah-Hilton Head has room to grow, director says
03.06 chamber-graham
Patrick Graham, executive director of the Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport, talks with Doug Morgan of EMC Engineering after Graham told Effingham Chamber of Commerce members about how much the airport has grown and how much it may still grow. - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue

It’s good flying weather for the Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport, Effingham Chamber of Commerce members learned Wednesday morning.

The airport, which also serves Effingham, has plenty of room to grow and has plans for long-term expansion, Executive Director Patrick Graham said.

“If you’re not growing, you’re not going anywhere,” he said.

Unlike most airports — Graham pointed to New York’s LaGuardia, which is on about 600 acres — the Savannah airport has 3,700 acres.

“The former director had the foresight to buy a lot of land and really position ourselves,” he said.

The airport now has 15 gates and has plans for as many as 20 gates.

“We have room to grow to 50 total gates,” Graham said. “We’re positioned for 50 to 60 years in the future. We have the space to do it. A lot of airports are congested. A lot of airports don’t have the room.”

Savannah-Hilton Head recently completed an expansion, increasing its number of gates from 10.

“We’re serviced by a lot of regional jets,” Graham said. “But the airplanes are changing. They’ve gone from 50-seaters to 75 and 90 seats, and they’re wider.”

A new four-story, $35 million parking deck also just opened, adding 1,690 spaces. The garage has sensors that show drivers where open spaces are on each level. The cost of putting in those sensors was $793,000.

“Our basic philosophy is we want to be first in service,” Graham said. “We want to be user friendly. Our job is to get you out of your car, through the airport, onto a plane and gone.

Each level also is covered — there is a roof over the fourth deck and the deck has an atrium.

“Our parking deck is a little upscale,” Graham said. “We wanted the new deck to look like a part of the terminal.”

Eventually, the existing deck will be torn down. Built in 1998, it adhered to 1996 building codes, but the state has since adopted California’s codes that call for such buildings to withstand earthquakes, Graham said.

The deck, paid for in cash, was built with money reserved from the airport’s annual surplus of about $8 million a year.

Along with the gates, the airport opened two new concession areas. One is the Hilton Head Marketplace, designed to capture the look and feel of the vacation getaway island. The concession area in the main terminal is called Savannah Square and is designed to look like a downtown Savannah square, Graham said.

The current terminal is 275,000 square foot and opened one month ahead of schedule and under budget. It cost $43 million to build.

The airport generates its revenue from the concessions and has an operating budget of $30 million a year. The airport is self-sufficient and does not receive tax revenue, Graham said.

The airport also controls much of the property on the I-95 interchange at Exit 104. There are currently 615 hotel rooms available there, with 685 more on the way soon. The occupancy rate is 87 percent, compared to the state average of 71 percent, according to Graham. Plus, he said, a Chili’s restaurant is scheduled to be built there.

Because so many of the inbound passengers are bound for Hilton Head, roughly 50 percent, the airport’s name includes the South Carolina island.

A new fixed base operator, who handles private aircraft and general aviation, is on board and the airport has begun service with Day Jet. Day Jet leases its light jet that seats four for a $1 per nautical mile. Day Jet users don’t have to check in through security, and the planes have a range of about 400 miles.

“It’s a thing of the future,” Graham said. “A lot of the people who used to buy first class tickets are doing this. They want to get from point A to point B without any hassle.”

Carriers using the airport have 18 non-stop destinations and fly to 15 major markets from Savannah. The airport is hoping to get Southwest Airlines in the future —“maybe not in my lifetime,” Graham joked — and is aiming at getting JetBlue.

“Our major target for 2008 is JetBlue,” Graham said. “We’ve got everything else covered.”

Last year, there were more than 1 million emplanements at Savannah-Hilton Head International, putting it on a par with Charleston. Jacksonville’s airport does about twice the traffic; Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International sees about 48 times the number of passengers.

The airport’s service area includes 18 counties in Georgia and three in South Carolina, encompassing 750,000 people.