Friday, January 28, 2005

Airport site's economic ramifications challenged

Sun Valley/Ketchum business leaders ask for answers

Express Staff Writer

Uneasy about the possible adverse effect on commercial air service at a new airport far from the Wood River Valley, the Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber & Visitors Bureau challenged Friedman Memorial Airport officials Tuesday night with questions that strongly suggest they prefer fighting to retain the Hailey airfield as the area's airline terminus despite government objections.

What amounted to a gentlemanly showdown came only a few minutes before the end of an otherwise tedious three-hour briefing by airport consultant Tom Schnetzer about the search for a site.

It was the evening's unexpected drama. The planned turnout by a large delegation of Camas County residents objecting to an airport site near Fairfield didn't materialize. Only about 30 Camas residents were in the standing-room-only audience.

It was within 15 minutes of the meeting's conclusion when former Ketchum city councilman Maurice Charlat, a member of the 50-member airport site selection committee and a chamber board member, unsheathed a page-and-a-half letter with seven questions that he announced was an attempt to obtain answers he said were lacking in periodic briefings of the site committee.

Among the questions presented:

·  Could the Federal Aviation Administration set aside restrictions and allow Friedman Memorial Airport to continue operating despite safety limitations?

·  Has Friedman Memorial Airport Authority ruled out moving the runway to the west or south?

·  How would a new airport be financed?

·  Would subsidies or revenue guarantees be obtained to cover losses of airlines operating from a new airport far from the present facility?

Sun Valley Resort general manager Wally Huffman, a site committee member and the most outspoken critic of site study, and real estate broker Dick Fenton, also a committee member, followed Charlat.

They both insisted that SkyWest and Horizon airlines officials have told them in meetings they'll refuse to provide air service to a new airport site without guaranteed subsidies to cover losses.

"The business community is scared to death," Fenton said, "about the adverse impact" of an airport far from the Wood River Valley.

"I'm pleading with you to talk to these guys (airline executives)."

"Are we going into this (developing a new airport) totally blind," asked Huffman, who has challenged the credibility of some data produced by consultant Mead & Hunt.

Schnetzer barely responded to Charlat's letter or remarks by Fenton and Huffman. He said, "we've engaged" the airlines in discussions, and said subsequent site meetings would unveil data about the economics of the handful of remaining candidate sites.

Both airlines have representatives on the site committee.

Schnetzer said, however, that at the site committee's meeting on Feb. 22, consultants would produce a detailed analysis of projected air service demand, financial considerations of a new airport and comparison of sites.

When he was contacted Wednesday by the Mountain Express to expand on the chamber letter, Charlat said that "to some degree" the airport authority hasn't been leveling with the community.

"We're frustrated by the behavior of the site committee meetings," he said. "They don't seem to be the place to get answers about questions that bother you."

"The process hasn't worked for me and a number on the committee."

Does the chamber prefer retaining Friedman and not a new airport?

"The best way to answer that is, most of the business community fears a possible downturn in our economic situation if the airport is moved to a distant location, such as sites 9 (near the Blaine-Lincoln counties line) or 13 (east of Fairfield along U.S. Highway 20)," Charlat said.

"What we have now (Friedman) works pretty well," he added.

The chamber, Charlat said, "wants to understand the FAA's attitude toward deviations from standards, and what is causing us to aggressively seek an alternative site."

Huffman has been an ardent and outspoken champion of site 3 in the Bellevue Triangle.

Blaine County Commission chair Sarah Michael, substituting at the meeting for Friedman authority chair Mary Ann Mix who was ill, said a new airport's impact on state Highway 75 and the availability of affordable housing for airport workers were essentials that need study.

In a separate interview, Hailey airport manager Rick Baird disputed Charlat's contention that answers were lacking for site committee members.

"Maurice is wrong," Baird said. "Most questions are answered in our master plan document." A copy of the airport master plan was given each site committee member during the group's opening meeting last summer.

To the key question of "permanent deviation" from its position on Friedman allowing larger aircraft, Baird said, "the FAA would not" waive its safety concerns about Friedman.

Baird said consultants gave exhaustive attention to alternatives to bring Friedman into FAA compliance. The airport is classified as a B-III facility but served by so-called category C-III aircraft, whose wingspans and approach speeds exceed the airport's present design capacity.

After the field's category was ratcheted up, the FAA asked what Friedman would do to comply. This led to the search for a new site after the airport's governing board adjudged modifying the present airport to be impractical because of costs and geography.

Baird said estimates were that modifying Friedman would cost $30 million to $35 million. Moving a runway to the east, south or west would involve a major new environmental impact study that the airport might not pass because of changed criteria.

Furthermore, Hailey Mayor Susan McBryant, also an airport authority member, has said several times that city officials would never approve moving or expanding the runway in a manner that would result in condemning residential neighborhoods and moving a large segment of Highway 75 to the east.

When modifying the present facility was decided to be unlikely, Baird said the authority's proposal to search for a new site was approved by the FAA, thus buying time for the non-compliant field while also garnering from the FAA 95 percent of the costs of the $1 million-plus site study.

Baird also said both SkyWest and Horizon have been close to the studies and denied either air carrier had flatly threatened not to serve the area at a distant airport without subsidies.

Baird produced a Nov. 30, 2004, letter from Horizon airport affairs director Kenneth Stevens to authority chair Mary Ann Mix.

It contained neither a request for subsidies nor any threat to withhold air service.

Stevens wrote that "site 3 (in the Bellevue Triangle) has many attributes that, all things being equal, make it a primary site. It is closest to the ski area, only minor modifications would make the desired approach appropriate to both ends of the runway and it would be convenient for both passengers and employees."

However, he acknowledged that fog, wind, birds and noise would be problems.

Site 3 was eliminated from the candidate site list after an uprising of protesting residents and because of its proximity to the city of Bellevue, which is the source of most noise complaints about Friedman.

Stevens said site 10, north of the Blaine-Lincoln county line on federal land was "our preference" thereafter from an operational standpoint. But he but added the distance from the Wood River Valley and costs of a new airport were of concern.

Baird said that as the site study continues, chamber executives and the community would be shown data designed to provide a detailed analysis of future community needs and the best site for a new airport.

However, Baird is quick to point out that proposed sites may not satisfy all criteria established by the FAA and other agencies.

On other occasions, Baird has said that failing to find a satisfactory site would amount to going "back to Square One."

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