Graham Kerr: Airports a Bargain, Good for Economy
May 23, 2015
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  • Recently, after serving on the Beaufort County Airports Board since 2009 and believing in term limits, I resigned to let someone from the next generation take my place.

    It has been a rewarding, but in some ways frustrating, experience: Government wheels grind slowly even at the county level, and always in the back of the chamber are the vociferously anti-airport folks.

    While the majority of the public regards airports as revenue generators and public infrastructure, the anti-airport crowd argues against our county airports.

    Why do they do it?

    I guess that it’s because they bought property near the airport and, once they moved in, they started to see lots of airplanes and decided they didn’t like them.

    The Beaufort County and Hilton Head Island airports provide the airline, corporate and general aviation service central to our continued prosperity as a vibrant tourist, farming, service and light industry area. In addition, Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort plays a major economic role north of the Broad River.

    These airports will also provide disaster relief if we who live on islands suffer a hurricane that blows all our bridges and docks away.

    Here are three of the anti-airport crowd’s arguments related to our civilian airports:

    Airports are expensive.

    Airports are mainly expensive on paper to locals. The Federal Aviation Administration provides 90 percent of airport facilities’ funding out of a trust fund called the Airport Capital Improvement Program. South Carolina pays 5 percent, and Beaufort County pays the remaining 5 percent. What a deal: We get $100 in infrastructure for $5.

    Here’s another part of “airport expense”: We depreciate them. We take the value of an airport and its equipment and depreciate it for up to 25 years.
    Each year, that depreciation shows up as a large red number on the county books.

    At the end of the depreciation life, the federal trust fund will kick in again, granting us more money to replace the depreciated asset. It’s a paper loss.

    Airports only benefit the rich on the backs of the general taxpayers.
    Incorrect: It goes back to the trust fund, which receives funding from two sources: the tax that aircraft owners pay for aircraft fuel, and the tax that airline passengers pay on an airline ticket.

    Airports only benefit “rich” airplane owners.

    There is this funny thing going on in America right now: the vilification of the rich. Most of them got rich by being smart, energetic, and taking the risk to start or grow a business. Rich people have money, lots of it. And guess what they do with it? They spend it. They spend it on business. They employ people.

    They pay taxes and they basically spread their wealth around. They stimulate regional prosperity.

    Good transportation infrastructure — good airports, roads, waterways, harbors and rail service — attracts them because they can continue to get richer in such places. They generate the wealth with which the county or city can provide the services to its less fortunate citizens.

    If you are in Pleasant Point when an F-18 is doing night field carrier landing practice at 700 feet; if you are on the green at Dataw when a Pilatus approaching runway 25 at Beaufort County Airport spoils your putt; or if a Piedmont Dash 8 landing on Hilton Head wakes up your child, you are not pleased and the local airport is bad news.

    On the other hand, our airports encourage tourism, business and employment.
    That prosperity funds the complex environment of our Lowcountry. That is very good news.

    Let’s make sure that we do not, as a result of the complaints of a vocal minority of property owners near our airports, fail to make the necessary upgrades to enable our airports to safely and efficiently meet our emerging aviation needs in the 21st century, thus ensuring the Lowcountry’s continuing prosperity.

    Graham Kerr of Beaufort served on the Beaufort County Airports Board from 2009 to 2015.