Fly SAV: Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport
It may sound obvious to say things are looking up at Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport. In fact, it was recently ranked number two on Condé Nast Traveler’s “The Best Airports in the U.S.: 2019 Readers’ Choice Awards.” After all, altitude is the name of the game here.
Yet with a 14 percent increase in passengers last year, a planned terminal expansion and several multimillion-dollar projects under way, airport enterprise is soaring higher than ever.
“We saw a big increase in airport activity and passengers in 2018, and we’ve also got a lot of development partnerships happening,” says Executive Director Greg Kelly. “We’re definitely keeping busy.”
This established nexus of southeastern accessibility makes its home base between Savannah’s enchanting downtown and the glorious golf courses and beaches of Hilton Head Island and is a short drive from Bluffton and other popular South Carolina enclaves. Nearby neighbors are the secluded barrier islands of the Georgia coast, including Jekyll—erstwhile playground of the Pulitzers and Rockefellers—and Little St. Simons, the private nature preserve and resort owned by former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Jr.
The airport currently reports 1.3 million annual enplanements, and its flight schedule grows more robust every season, but its farthest-reaching capacities may be on the ground. While Delta, American and United capture the majority of the market share, newer players like Frontier, Air Canada and Allegiant have found Savannah/Hilton Head International to be a prosperous destination and continue to add nonstop flights to their networks. In fact, Allegiant recently named the airport as a new base of operations, investing $50 million in infrastructure to house two Airbus aircraft and create 66 new jobs.
“Savannah has been an outstanding city for Allegiant, and we’ve continued to grow our presence to accommodate the ever-increasing demand by leisure travelers for everything this special region has to offer,” said Allegiant’s VP of Government Affairs Keith Hansen after the company’s announcement this spring. “It’s a perfect location for a permanent base, where having locally based aircraft and crews will mean a whole world of expanded options.”
Recently completed construction of Gulfstream Aerospace’s new $55 million, 202,000-square-foot maintenance facility—built on the site of the original (now demolished) terminal—includes a hangar big enough to service up to 13 G650s at once. The corporate jet manufacturer has been headquartered at the airport for over 50 years, and the two have bolstered the other’s success. The new facility will be a stone’s throw from Gulfstream’s home base for sales, and Kelly points out that even after many expansions, jet owners can still pull right up to the company’s front door. (No word if they take trade-ins.)
“It’s been a great location for them since they came here in the 1960s, and they stayed in their original footprint until corporate jet business picked up in the last couple of decades,” says Kelly. “Now they occupy every quadrant of our airport.”
Additional aviation-related tenants include FlightSafety, which offers pilot and cabin crew training for all of Gulfstream’s models, hosting industry professionals from around the world. Nearby, the 19,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art Jumbo General Aviation Federal Inspection Services Facility will house a U.S. Customs and Border Protection office to facilitate convenient processing of air cargo on international flights, with efforts in place to expand connections with European charter operators. (To accommodate general aviation and private charters, the airport partners with fixed-based operators Signature and Sheltair.)
While the reach of Savannah/Hilton Head International continues to extend throughout the region and across the globe, Kelly and the commission are tending to relationships at home. Southbound Brewery, Leopold’s Ice Cream and other beloved local and regional brands have sprouted up before and after the security checkpoint—a departure from the time-honored model of working with national services dedicated to the airport retail and refreshment sectors.
“Most airports work with large companies that come in and invest in the infrastructure in exchange for long-term leases. We’ve worked with [airport store operator] Paradies on the retail side and HMSHost on the food and beverage side since we opened this building in 1994, and they’ve done a great job partnering with local vendors and suppliers,” explains Kelly.
“But as Savannah, Hilton Head and the surrounding regions have grown, we’ve been approached by smaller companies on how to do business here at the airport. Traditionally, we’d direct them to those larger companies to partner with them. But in recent years, our board has set it as a priority for us to have local and regional vendors represented individually as well as in those partnerships.”
“We have gone to great lengths to ensure that our airport is doing everything possible to bring local, small and minority busineses in to SAV to open shops or sell their products,” said Savannah Airport Commission Chairman Steve Green, “and the results have been incredible.”
The result is a richer, more enjoyable experience for travelers—one that recently was honored with the number four spot on Travel + Leisure’s list of best domestic airports. In the high-ceilinged atrium where passengers and those waiting for them convene, the scene feels more like a front porch party than an airport. Laughter and conversation combine with live jazz piano riffs, and there are more than enough rocking chairs to go around as people sip locally brewed beer at the Southbound Taphouse and enjoy scoops of Savannah Socialite from Leopold’s Ice Cream.
“Having locations in Savannah/Hilton Head International allows people who weren’t able to make it into our flagship parlor on Broughton Street to stop in for a scoop or a milkshake before they leave the city,” says Stratton Leopold, owner of Leopold’s. “People who travel frequently tell us they look forward to seeing our soda jerks each time they fly in and out of SAV.”
The focus on local partnerships also means travelers can shop for quality, authentic mementos without leaving the airport. Satchel, founded by SCAD graduate Elizabeth Seeger in 2006, has gained international renown for the handmade luxury goods sold at its flagship store on Liberty Street in Savannah. The team recently opened a new showroom and studio in the atrium, where travelers can watch artisans at work and peruse leather purses and exquisite beach bags made by hometown textile house Tulicarpa. (Satchel’s signature leather pompoms make a meaningful souvenir.)
Past the TSA checkpoint is the Salt Table, a proud member of the Georgia Grown program, which now offers its most popular homegrown spices and seasonings as a full-lease retail partner. “We’re excited to be a part of the airport family. We are now in our third year,” said owner and proprietor Dave Legasse. “This is a great opportunity to showcase products that are exclusively Georgia grown to visitors as they are arriving or departing the airport.”
In addition, the airport has invested in postsecurity kiosks to provide an entry-level platform for local and regional businesses. One of these is Beads on the Vine, which purveys a line of unique jewelry crafted on-site from semiprecious gemstones, freshwater pearls, African glass and other natural materials. Originally from Atlanta, owner and artist Leila Prioleau parlayed her career experience working with Paradies into an independent venture based out of Savannah/Hilton Head International. Her proposal for a workshop/retail space resonated with Kelly and the airport commission, and now Beads on the Vine is a full-lease partner with two kiosks.
“I set up shop here three years ago, and it’s been a real pleasure. My business has doubled,” says Prioleau. “It is a very sophisticated customer coming through this airport, with a real appreciation for the product.”
Kelly is looking forward to seeing more local and regional products in the airport with a $40 million terminal expansion that will add retail and restaurant space along with four new gates and expand the current security checkpoint.
As he prepares the airport for its steady ascent, Kelly credits Visit Savannah, the Hilton Head-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce and the Savannah Economic Development Authority for helping spread the word about the region.
“We know the trend is there,” he adds. “We know the momentum is there. We know what’s coming in terms of hotel capacity, residential development and business development. And we’re ready.”