Regional Airports Powering Economy in the Southern Carolina Region
June 07, 2022
By Laura J. McKenzie VISTA VOLUNTEER / SouthernCarolina Alliance
The hum of an engine overhead causes us to look up. It’s more than just a motor powering a small airplane over treetops. It’s an economic engine that is powering the Southern Carolina region.
South Carolina has 57 airports, six of which are commercial service airports while the rest are considered “general aviation” airports. Those 57 airports generate $16.3 billion annually in economic activity in the state of South Carolina, according to a 2018 study commissioned by the South Carolina Aeronautics Commission.
In the SouthernCarolina Alliance region (which includes the counties of Allendale, Barnwell, Bamberg, Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper), over $220 million in economic activity is revved up annually as a result of the one commercial and seven general aviation airports located here. That doesn’t even include impact generated by the military base in Beaufort.
In 2018, these eight airports accounted for 1,739 jobs with a payroll of over $60.6 million. The vast majority of the jobs were created by Hilton Head Island Airport, but 453 jobs were generated at the general aviation airports, according to the SCAC study.
While those economic impact numbers are significant, area airport managers say the numbers have lifted up dramatically since the report was generated. Covid was actually a boon, they say, because county airports offered less restrictions and greater ability for people to travel in small groups.
The airports record “airport operations” – take offs and landings - and estimate passengers. They consider “visitors” as those who are coming from more than 50 miles away. Additionally, there are pilots who base their aircraft at the airports, renting space and using the runways frequently.
The seven smaller airports attract over 33,878 visitors to the Southern Carolina region, and Hilton Head’s airport adds another 30,000 visitors annually, according to the 2018 study. They come here for business, pleasure or a combination of both. Some flights are just passing through, using the airports as fueling stations and taking advantage of their facilities for bathrooms, food and information.
Most of the airports offer “quiet” areas where pilots can take a nap, have a shower, get a snack or use computers available on site. They are open to pilots 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
While all but one of the airports in the SCA region sell 100LL (low lead) fuel for the smaller prop planes, several also offer Jet A fuel for small jet-engine planes. (That one airport is expecting to have both types of fuel for sale in the very near future.) Fuel sales are a major source of income for these airports and
they compete rigorously to offer the lowest pricing. Pilots can look online for pricing while making their flight plans, check in-flight or be happily surprised upon landing and inquiring.
Income for the airports is also derived from renting space for short-term parking, or in buildings called T-hangars or box hangars where planes can be stored for longer periods of time. Many don’t charge “tie-down” fees for short visits, enticing pilots to use their facilities. Other revenue is generated from repair facilities, flight schools or other aviation-related businesses that rent space at the airports.
The smaller airports offer less hassle and more anonymity for visitors, some of whom are on economic development missions for their companies. Having an airport nearby often is one important item on a checklist for companies seeking locations to build or expand. Their first impression of a community is the airport, which is why local governments invest in nice, clean facilities that are comfortable with artistic touches. Many of the terminals either have just undergone extensive upgrades or there are plans to do so in the relatively near future.
Marco Cavazzoni, representing District 6 on the S.C. Aeronautics Commission, said at a recent aviation event in the region, “Magical stories often happen around aviation.”
Now retired, Cavazzoni noted his first experience was in 2009 when he flew into the Bamberg County Airport “in the dark of night on Halloween incognito” on a mission for his former employer, Boeing, to consider placing a plant in North Charleston. The result was a historic decision for South Carolina.
European-born Cavazzoni and his family liked to drive through rural areas and were enchanted by the region. By meeting people and getting to know the area, Marco said he came to realize how important the rural communities are to the state and nation. He has since located his personal aircraft and invested in aviation-related businesses in Colleton County.
Funding from the South Carolina Aeronautics Commission (SCAC) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been a critical key to helping local governments maintain and upgrade their airport’s runways and facilities.
The majority of the airports in the SCA region were created in the 1930’s and 40’s and are steeped in history. That history is also a draw to visitors to the airports and nearby parks.
Each airport has unique characteristics including its designation code, runway length, services, amenities and history.
Allendale County Airport (AQX) was activated in May 1969 and is situated off U.S. Highway 278 between the towns of Allendale and Fairfax. It is a place that Allendale Airport Manager Deborah Creech calls “a gem”.
The runway was originally 3,200 feet long but was upgraded in recent years to 4,990 feet. A resurfacing project is expected to begin in late 2022.
Currently the runway can accommodate aircraft from prop planes up to 15-18 passenger jets.
According to the SCAC study, approximately 2,953 visitors arrive annually in South Carolina at this airport. In the first four months of 2022, there have been 1,392 planes which stopped and fueled at AQX.
“We also have about 40 planes a month that touch and go,” said Creech. “Some are instructors from the Charleston area who bring their students here. Others are pilots who stop and use our facilities, but don’t purchase fuel.”
The airport and its activities support annual tax revenues estimated at $79,840. Its annual economic activity has a total impact of $1,786,800 annually, according to the study.
The airport offers self-serve 100LL and Jet A fuel. “We sell between 3,000 and 5,000 gallons a month,” said Creech.
There are 10 units in the one T-Hangar and all are currently occupied. An additional three planes are based at AQX. Tie-downs are available for visiting pilots.
The terminal, which was remodeled 13 years ago, includes a pilot lounge, conference room, flight planning room, and vending machines. Artwork touting USC-Salkehatchie adorns one of the terminal entryway walls.
“We love our local college,” said Creech. The conference room, which seats 10 people comfortably, is also available to the public by reservation and can accommodate larger groups as well.
What makes this airport special?
“Its locale,” said Creech. “It is peaceful and serene here. Pilots and passengers first see it from the sky, then enjoy it from the ground. It’s beautiful.”
She also noted the airport is centrally located between northern states and Florida. “We’re right in the middle,” she said.
Creech said friendly personal service and clean bathrooms are also a draw for pilots. “Many of the pilots know me by name. They like coming to a place where they are treated like family. They visit once, they always come back.”
A courtesy car is available for pilots to visit Allendale and Fairfax for a meal.
The terminal is open between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. every day, but pilots can access the building at any time 24/7 with a code. Creech also said she is available after hours by phone and is glad to assist pilots.
Creech says visitors come to Allendale County not only to drive to nearby destinations, but also to stay. “This is a place where you buy land, put what you want on it and relax,” she said. “Allendale County is perfect for hunting, bird watching or just enjoying the surroundings. For those who want big-city shopping, we are 60 to 90 minutes from Aiken, Augusta, Columbia or Hilton Head Island.”
More upgrades are on the horizon. “This year we are getting a new apron and taxiway replaced. We are just waiting on FAA approval,” said Creech. The airport manager said a new runway, upgraded lighting to LEDs and terminal upgrades are also slated within the next few years.
Bamberg County Airport (99N) was activated in 1982 and is located between the City of Bamberg and the Town of Denmark. Its lighted runway is 3,603 feet long and attracts mostly propeller-style planes. It offers self-serve 100LL fuel for sale and strives to have the lowest price in the region.
The annual economic activity is estimated to be $219,610 annually, according to the SCAC study. Over 400 visitors arrive annually via the airport. Annual tax revenues were estimated in 2018 to be $7,920 but that figure has grown. “One plane paid almost $10,000 this year alone,” according to County Administrator and Airport Manager Joey Preston.
The airport has two hangars. One belongs to the facility while the other is leased to Crosswind Aviation, which offers charter services as well as contract pilot and aircraft management services across all of South Carolina.
Plans are underway to add T-hangars for smaller planes and a box hangar that can accommodate larger, twin-engine airplanes.
While Preston is the airport manager, he is assisted by Bamberg County Fire Department Coordinator Paul Eubanks.
According to Eubanks, a group of people who were doctors, business and recreational pilots in Bamberg County came together in the 1970’s with the desire to have a local airport. They “approached Bamberg County Council, found 94 acres of land, got the opportunity and took it to create the airport.”
It has since been redeveloped with the addition of a terminal that has bathrooms, an efficiency kitchen, a pilot room, conference room, indoor lounge and outdoor porch with white rockers. “Our airport is very well maintained and is an attractive place,” said Eubanks.
“The economic development component was important” in the creation of the airport, said Eubanks recently. “It gave Bamberg County more to offer.”
That became very evident when Jim Tobul touched down in 1986 in search of the new location for expanding Tobul Accumulator, Inc. At each place he visited in four states, he searched for a nearby airport as flying was not only a family hobby but also a need for the business.
During his visit to Bamberg County’s airport, in a moment of serendipity, Jim Tobul met Bill Wetzel who was then Bamberg County’s economic development director. Their conversation led to Bamberg County being selected for their expansion. It grew into a thriving industry, providing a peak of 100 jobs and resources for Bamberg County before it was sold in 2014.
Joe Tobul, Jim’s father, saw the airport’s potential. He invested time and money into the airfield, literally helping to cut the grass, upgrading the facilities and working on his vintage WWII F4U-4 Corsair named “Korean War Hero”. The airfield was named “Tobul Field” on March 22, 2022 in memory of the senior Tobul and in honor of the Tobul family’s continuing contributions.
That commitment is being carried on by Bamberg County Council and its administrator.
“We understand the potential of this airport and the economic impact it has for our communities,” said Administrator Joey Preston. “It’s huge.”
Barnwell Regional Airport (BNL) was constructed by the U.S. Army Air Force as a B-25 Mitchell bomber training base. It still draws a variety of military aircraft on a regular basis that are on training exercises, according to airport manager Brandon Chavis.
Barnwell Regional has two runways. The primary runway is 5,119 feet long, the secondary is 4,526 feet. While these runways can handle larger aircraft, the majority of planes landing there are small to mid-sized corporate-style aircraft.
The study indicates that Barnwell’s Airport draws 2,072 visitors annually to South Carolina. That is particularly true during the week of the Masters Tournament in April as Barnwell is only an hour’s drive from the world-renowned golf course.
“We’ll get over a hundred planes here,” said Chavis. “It’s a busy time.”
Since Covid, flights coming into Barnwell’s airport have “skyrocketed,” said Chavis. “We get a lot of private jets here.”
Because of its location between northern states and Florida, Barnwell is a logical choice for pilots needing fuel and a rest stop.
“We sell 100LL and Jet A fuel. We’re also the only airport in South Carolina that sells 93 Ethanol-free fuel,” said Chavis.
With regards to economic impact, he said they have sold over 8,500 gallons of just 100LL fuel in February, March and April of 2022, not including jet fuel.
While technically owned by the county, Barnwell Regional Airport receives no local government funding and operates self-sufficiently, according to Chavis.
In addition to selling fuel, the airport offers tie-downs, 30 T-hangar slots, 7 spots in a box hangar, a 2-bay open hangar and a 3-bay maintenance hangar.
Its terminal offers pilots and passengers a lounge, flight planning room, pilot room with a shower, vending and kitchenette, and Wi-Fi. “We keep a courtesy car for pilots and visitors to use to go into Barnwell, grab a meal or shop,” said Chavis.
The proximity of Veteran’s Park has also been a plus as “some folks want to stretch their legs” and take a lap or two around the park on its paved and lighted walking path.
Chavis said Covid definitely changed things for area airports. “We used to just get business class visitors but now the pilots are flying families.”
He said Barnwell’s airport is special because it is “safe and accessible” as well as “the courtesy and convenience you get when you come here.”
Barnwell Regional Airport is also home to the “Corvair College” which draws pilots and mechanics from destinations nationally (and a few internationally) for a week to learn about and work on Corvair engines which power home-built aircraft. Covid put the workshop on hold for a couple of years but plans are underway to schedule a new event, said Chavis.
Lowcountry Regional Airport (RBW) in Colleton County once served as the Walterboro Air Field where airmen received their final training before going overseas in the 1940s. It is also home to the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of Black pilots who were feared and respected by their German combatants. Historical sites such as these draw visitors to the region and add to the economic impact of the airports.
When the federal government ended operations, it deeded the airport to Colleton County and the City of Walterboro in a 50/50 partnership.
“We are lucky,” says Airport Manager Thomas Rowe. “Both the city and the county realize what an asset this is. Both support it and there is no in-fighting.”
Now the 1,400 acres of land is the home of a modern airport with two open runways that can support large corporate jets, although the mid-sized jets and prop planes are the most common. One runway is 6,007 feet while the other is 5,700 feet.
“While our operating hours are technically 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., the airport is open 24/7. We are just a phone call away and can have someone here to park them and get them fuel although we have self-service pumps,” said Rowe.
After 10 p.m., the airport lights are accessible from 50 miles away with a click system operating on a special frequency, according to Rowe. “The pilot can turn the lights on and land.”
The airport also offers 26 T-hangars and three box hangars that can accommodate 24 spaces.
“We have fuel, catering for passengers and crew, ice/water/coffee/vending machines, an expanded pilot lounge with a computer as well as a bathroom with a shower,” said Airport Manager Thomas Rowe. “We offer repairs and avionics. There is also a flight school available on site.”
The new 5,600 square-foot terminal which opened in 2019 includes granite counters, hardwood floors, a large conference room, and a kitchen. Visitors are greeted with artwork on the walls and some locally crafted furniture. Those who don’t have a car waiting for them can arrange for a rental car.
“We are positive all the time and we are open for business all the time,” said Rowe.
Its location is also a draw for those who don’t want to contend with the hassles of a large commercial airport. Lowcountry Regional Airport is an hour’s drive to popular destinations such as Charleston and Hilton Head in South Carolina and Savannah, Ga.
“People can land and be out of the airport in five minutes,” said Rowe.
It also offers privacy for business and industrial people who want a sense of anonymity.
“We don’t ask them why they are here. We just ask how we can serve them,” said Rowe.
Hampton County Airport (3J0) is situated halfway between Varnville and the county seat of Hampton. It was created in the 1940’s and its runway has recently been upgraded.
The runway is 3,600 feet long. The airport draws 322 visitors a year, according to the 2018 SCAC study, but airport managers are sure this number is low. In the first four months of 2022, there have been 682 flights recorded but many of those are local (under 50 miles from the airport).
Hampton County’s airport is estimated to generate $3.4 million in annual economic activity. The airport and its services support annual tax revenues of $149,370. A total of 30 jobs are attributed to it, according to the study.
The runway was updated in 2020-21 thanks to a USDA grant and South Carolina Aeronautics Commission funding coupled with local support. Hampton County’s airport now has a 3,600-foot runway with a parallel taxiway. In addition, two T-hangar buildings and two box hangars were constructed, according to Hampton County Airport Commission member Buddy Bullard. Fencing to keep deer out and provide additional security is currently being installed around the property.
From January through September in 2021, airport records show, 1,098 planes landed or took off at the airport. That included 1,049 regular airplanes, 43 gliders, 1 Lifenet, 1 Careflight and 5 tree-trimmers. Using those figures, it can be estimated that an average of 122 flights are recorded each month at Hampton County’s airport.
In 2021, an estimated $96,564 of fuel was sold as the airport offers both 100LL and Jet A fuel, according to records at the airport.
Besides fuel sales, the airport earns tens of thousands of dollars in revenue from rental of the T-hangars and box hangers. Currently, 16 out of the 20 T-hangars are rented out and there is a waiting list of potential renters, according to Buddy O’Quinn, who oversees the day-to-day airport operations. Dobie Hiers is the listed airport manager.
Hampton County Administrator Rose Dobson-Elliott reports that revenue in 2022 is anticipated to be $169,416 for hangar rent, fuel and miscellaneous income.
Most of the people visiting the airport are there for business and recreation purposes, says O’Quinn. “We are on a special path between destinations up North and Florida. Pilots stop here for low gas prices, the atmosphere and the convenience.”
Business people associated with industries at Lowcountry Regional Industrial Park in Early Branch also draw regular flights.
“Others are interested in real estate, some in business prospecting,” said Bullard.
A courtesy “taxi” is available at the airport.
“I can take them downtown for lunch or to a destination close by,” said O’Quinn.
Long-term plans are for more improvements with the goal of becoming a government-level FAA-recognized airport which would make it eligible for $150,000 a year in funding, said Bullard.
One thing that is new at the Hampton County Airport is the “Young Eagles” Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) program. EAA Young Eagles coordinators introduce young people ages 8 to 17 to aviation.
“We hope some may consider careers as pilots or mechanics,” said Bullard.
Ridgeland-Claude Dean Airport (3J1) in Jasper County is an airport that is on the verge of greatness. As a result of the $23 million already spent and the additional $6 million scheduled to be spent, the airport will become a full-service professional airport. Jasper County is basically building a new airport on the campus of the old airport, according to Development Services Division Director and Acting Airport Manager Danny Lucas.
Phases 1 - 4 included a 215-acre land purchase, construction of a new runway and parallel taxiway, construction of a new 84,000 square-foot apron, construction of a 32-stall parking lot and laying the groundwork literally and figuratively for new facilities.
In 2020, the new 4,200-foot runway and parallel taxiway were opened. The former 2,672-foot runway was turned into a taxiway. Already there are plans underway to extend the new runway another 1,200 feet, although Lucas admits that the extension is a number of years away.
A modular temporary terminal/fixed base operation (FBO) has opened. Furniture and fixtures have also been installed.
“We are in Phase 5 now,” said Lucas. That includes installation of an Automated Weather Observation Station, creation of a permanent terminal / fixed base operation, an instrument landing system, building 12-unit T-hangars, and another ramp.
One project that will have the greatest impact on the airport will be the installation of two 12,000-gallon fuel tanks and trucks.
“The airport will be selling aviation gasoline and jet fuel in the very near future," stated Lucas.
He said he hopes Ridgeland-Claude Dean will be a full-service airport by the end of 2026 although construction and delivery timelines have been impacted by Covid, companies experiencing labor challenges, and supply-chain issues.
The SCAC study reported 1,540 visitors annually to the Ridgeland airport.
Ridgeland - Claude Dean Airport is approximately 40 minutes from Bluffton, 50 minutes to Hilton Head Island and 60 minutes to Savannah.
The airport is “a gateway to the community,” said Lucas. “Jasper County Council wants make sure the new airport makes a positive impression upon business and recreational visitors. In addition, we are eight minutes away from the PGA-class golf course, Congaree.”
Some of the “unknown” visitors, Lucas is sure, are people coming in for economic development reasons and seeking privacy in their flights.
Congaree Golf Club and Turkey Hill Plantation provide shuttle services to their facilities. Ridgeland’s airport has a contract with Enterprise car rental and also owns a courtesy van for 2-hour usage by pilots.
"The airport is also home to 70 based aircraft with a waiting list of pilots wanting to call Ridgeland their home airport,” said Lucas. "We are making room for business and recreational aviation. It is an exciting time for aviation in our region."
He is convinced that those changes will have a huge economic impact on the future of the community.
The SCAC 2018 report reported $8.3 million in economic impact at the Ridgeland airport so the changes will only make that number grow.
Beaufort County has two public airports: Beaufort Executive Airport on Lady’s Island and Hilton Head Airport on Hilton Head Island. Both are owned by Beaufort County.
Jon Rembold serves as Director of both airports and has pride in both of them. “I could talk about them forever,” he said in a recent interview.
Beaufort Executive Airport (ARW) has a runway of 3,434 feet that is situated on 110 acres of land on Lady’s Island. It was activated in 1973. There is a partial parallel taxiway with medium intensity runway lighting.
According to the SCAC study, there are 12,689 visitors annually to the Beaufort Executive Airport. The airport and its activities support annual tax revenues estimated at $512,500. Total economic activity at this airport is $12.5 million.
Rembold said the number of visitors from outside 50 miles is now closer to 15,000 annually and the economic impact is greater. “It has really picked up in recent years,” he said.
He speculated that 60 percent of people come to the airport for recreation while the rest are on business. “It’s really hard to tell. People’s reasons are inherently private.”
The airport offers both the Automated Surface Observing System and Automated Weather Observation System for pilots.
The terminal building is located approximately midfield and has been recently renovated.
“It’s really quite nice,” said Rembold. The terminal provides a pilot lounge, kitchenette area, vending machines, restroom/showers, and a conference room.
Airport staff assist visitors to the Fixed Base Operator (FBO)/terminal, servicing and fueling aircraft and assisting with ground transportation and hotel arrangements as necessary.
This airport sells 100LL and Jet A fuel. Sales have increased exponentially, according to Rembold.
“In 2020, we sold about 89,658 gallons combined. In 2021, that increased to nearly 161,000 gallons. So far this year, we are tracking about 20 percent higher than last year. Through April we’ve sold 49,969 gallons. It’s a nice trend,” he said. “We try to stay very competitive in our pricing.”
Flight operations have increased from 21,059 in 2022 to 26,921 in 2021. In the first four months of 2022, the airport has already recorded 10,404 operations.
There are 34 T-hangars located at the north end of the facility. All are rented out and there is a huge waiting list. The only box hanger on site is used for mosquito control, said Rembold.
Of the 2,200 operations on average per month, 70% are general aviation while 30% are air taxi charter services, according to their website. There are 59 aircraft based at the airport.
Enterprise and Hertz car rentals are available.
Flight training, aircraft rentals and tours are available through vendors at the airport.
What makes Beaufort Executive special is its location. “We are situated right next to downtown Beaufort,” said Rembold. “Besides the sea islands, it is also near the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island as well as the Marine Corps Air Station.”
“Whatever their reason for coming here,” said Rembold, “visitors can get great food, hang out or stay overnight in some great places. This place is really a gem.”
Hilton Head Island Airport (HXD) is the only commercial airport in the SCA region and has a manned control tower. Travelers can choose flights aboard Delta, American and United airlines that travel along its 5,000-foot runway with parallel taxiways.
“People can land here in the middle of paradise and begin their vacations,” said Rembold. “There is a lower stress level here. You don’t have to land in a different state and fight the traffic driving in.”
This airport has the greatest single economic impact among airports in the region. According to the 2018 study, approximately 30,734 visitors arrive in South Carolina via the airport each year. Airport and airport activities supporting annual tax revenues were estimated at $6.8 million at the time of the study, according to the SCAC, but updated 2020 figures provided by Rembold show tax revenues to be $17.1 million. More than 3,138 jobs are generated by the airport, according to updated figures.
Airport records show rapid growth at HXD as annual economic activity was $417 million in 2020 – up 151 percent since the SCAC study was completed.
According to their website, Hilton Head Airport has “a beautiful full-service commercial terminal building in a great location. We also offer a full-service general aviation facility. We're centrally located mid-island just 15 minutes from everything you come to Hilton Head to enjoy - Harbour Town, the ocean, golf, tennis, fine dining and excellent shopping are all just around the corner.”
“It’s almost a boutique terminal,” said Rembold. Besides vacationers and visitors to popular events such as the RBC Heritage Golf Tournament, Rembold said the island and its airport are selected for specialty groups. One such event increased their jet traffic from 6 to 10 jets parked on the ramp to 43 jets over a weekend. “It was incredible,” he said.
The airport has four transportation services available. Parking is free for the first two hours but otherwise, a $10 flat fee per day pre-paid at automated parking kiosks.
There are tie-downs for planes available with no waiting, but the 22 T-hangars, corporate plane hangars, and nine box hangars have waiting lists. Rembold said four of the box hangars are county-owned and the other five are privately-owned.
Signature Flight Support sells 100LL and Jet A fuel.
There are services for both pilots and crew in addition to passengers.
Additional services include third-party catering, aircraft detailing, aircraft maintenance, and concierge services. A full list of services is available on the airport’s website.
Rembold said a Commercial Service Terminal Improvements Project is currently out for bids. The plans for the new terminal were developed using a stakeholder group made up of the airlines, TSA, community representatives, and local business people.
“This was a great way to design the building because of the important input from the people who will work in the building and from those who will use the building. This is a signature project and this is a practical way to be able to design a facility that will function as intended and will reflect the natural beauty of the island,” said Rembold.
With the services and amenities offered by the region’s airports, the Southern Carolina region is even more accessible to prospects, business owners and visitors. The investment by our counties in our local airports, which have become economic engines, continues to pay off as our visitors and airport activity continue to grow from our smallest airport to our largest.
Allendale County Airport – www.allendalecounty.com/government/allendale_airport.php
Bamberg County Airport – www.bambergair.com
Barnwell County Airport – www.barnwellregionalairport.com
Beaufort Executive Airport – www.beaufortcountyairport.com
Hampton County Airport - www.hamptoncountysc.org
Hilton Head Airport – www.hiltonheadairport.com
Lowcountry Regional Airport – www.lowcountryairport.com
Ridgeland – Claude Dean Airport – www.jaspercountysc.gov/ridgeland-claude-dean-airport-3j1-/home
South Carolina Aeronautics Commission – www.scaeronautics.sc.gov
SCAC study - 2018 South Carolina Executive Summary-Final.pdf (sc.gov)