Friday, August 27, 2004

Aircraft trend threatens Friedman

Small jets ordered by regional airlines

Express Staff Writer

Friedman Memorial has two scheduled air carriers. Skywest operates 74 turboprops but is expanding its regional jet fleet, and Horizon currently has 45 turbprop models with jets on order. Photo by David N. Seelig

Consultants to Friedman Memorial Airport produced a statistic Tuesday night that seems to foretell another major threat to the survival of the Hailey airfield as a commercial airport.

Regional airlines serving communities such as the Wood River Valley have placed orders and options for 2,026 new aircraft for delivery between now and 2016--all of them small regional jets except for 15 that are turboprops.

Mike Boggs, of Friedman consultants Hunt & Mead, told the Friedman Memorial site selection advisory committee, which is charged with studying whether a new airport is needed, that as regional airlines abandon turboprop aircraft that now serve Friedman, and build jet fleets, the present airport could be bypassed.

Boggs? colleague, consultant Tom Schnetzer, said the Wood River region would ?be in a bind? because airlines using small jets would find operating out of Friedman Memorial uneconomical.

The conventional wisdom is that the 50- to 90-passenger small jets would need reduced passenger loads to operate safely from Friedman, whose runway at an altitude of 5,700-foot requires longer takeoffs on hot summer days.

Friedman Memorial has two scheduled air carriers. Skywest operates 74 turboprops but is expanding its regional jet fleet, and Horizon currently has 45 turboprop models with jets on order. The turboprops generally also are costlier to operate and slower than jets, two factors that make them less appealing to passengers.

The other major obstacle to Friedman?s future is the Federal Aviation Administration finding that the airport is out of compliance with safety standards for larger aircraft now using the field, such as Horizon?s Bombardier DeHaviland Q400.

The issue of aircraft trends took a back seat momentarily as Sun Valley Company general manager Wally Huffman challenged statistics about the Wood River Valley?s growth and the travel demands of a larger population.

Huffman said the number of lodging beds had declined. He credited the leap in air travel to ?artificial numbers? generated by subsidized Horizon Airline flights to Friedman Memorial from Los Angeles and Oakland that are underwritten by the resort.

Not so, countered Schnetzer. His charts going back to 1990 before the subsidized flights showed the number of passengers clocked through Friedman had doubled between 1990 and 2003 to more than 70,000 per year. He also said that travel by local residents had jumped by 42 percent over the last 10 years.

The passenger traffic at Friedman would?ve been larger had it not suffered ?leakage?: some 39 percent of travelers from the valley drove principally to Boise to take flights with comparably cheaper ticket prices and jet service to other hub cities around the nation.

Another committee member, Realtor Dick Fenton, also wondered what impact owners of second homes and permanent residents had on the travel statis-tics, compared to vacationers. Consultants replied they?d develop a set of statistics.

In an edgy aside to the consultants? projections that has become his signature style at meetings, Huffman said, ?I?d be building more ski lifts if I believed in figures.? However, if growth projections for the next several decades prove true, Huffman said, ?I?d raise up out my grave and shout ?Hallelujah!? ?

Huffman generally has indicated that if a new airport is built, he favors one close to the valley. In what seemed to be something of a concession, Huffman said, ?I don?t have a problem moving the airport to a new site if it meets everyone?s needs.?

Challenging the accuracy of statistics seemed irrelevant in the face of other realities.

To comply with FAA safety requirements at the current site, tens of millions of dollars would need to be spent on land acquisition to lengthen Friedman Memorial?s 6,952-foot runway, relocate adjacent highway 75 and disrupt nearby neighborhoods, and relocate taxiways farther from the runway.

But even if the FAA funded such improvements, which airport manager Rick Baird in the past has said is unlikely, Friedman still would have bordering mountain terrain that limits operations, a runway generally used in only one direction to and from the south, plus the noise factor that is a major community issue with nearby residents.

The site selection committee, which eventually is expected to recommend several possible sites for a new airport elsewhere in the Blaine-Camas-Lincoln counties area, heard for the first time three possible scenarios for a future airport:

 Complete abandonment of Friedman and opening a new airfield for commercial, cargo and general aviation

 A new airport with all commercial operations, cargo and some general aviation

 A new airport for commercial and cargo operations only, with general aviation remaining at the present airport as an independently, locally funded facility.

Schnetzer pointed out the third scenario also would pose questions of whether the airfield?s original plot of some 120 acres would have to be returned to the Friedman family that donated it in the early 1900s. Also, FAA funding would go with the new airport, he said, and a private Friedman would need to gen-erate all its funds locally.

A new airport, Schnetzer pointed out in a series of drawings, would need a minimum of 550 to 680 acres with the potential to expand to 1,000 acres, plus clear space allowing an instrument approach path extending 10 miles outward from the runway.

A larger airport attracting jet service would offer the potential for direct service to major hub airports throughout the nation, Boggs said. Presently, Sky-west?s Friedman service is only to and from Salt Lake City, while Horizon has the subsidized seasonal California flights and regular service to Seattle.

A tentative list of 16 possible sites for a new airport has been designated south and southwest of Friedman. Boggs told the committee that an ideal site would be 25 to 65 minutes drive time from the Wood River Valley?s vacation attractions.

The committee?s October meeting will begin to eliminate sites because of ?fatal flaw? characteristics that don?t meet FAA standards.

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