Friday, February 25, 2005

FAA letter encourages search for new site

Friedman's noncompliance with standards OK for now

Express Staff Writer

A private plane, decorated with colorful blue flames, arrived Wednesday at Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey. Express photo by Chris Pilaro

The long-awaited response from the Federal Aviation Administration about the future of Friedman Memorial Airport as well as a possible new airport is short on yes or no answers, and long on careful bureaucratic lingo requiring several readings.

But the FAA letter tends to support the airport governing board's goals of finding a new airport site while the FAA temporarily allows continued operations in noncompliance.

Copies of the six-page letter, plus five attached pages of FAA rules, were handed out Tuesday night to the airport site selection committee at the end of a 3 hour and 15 minute session.

The letter is bound to be a central part of the airport authority's regular monthly meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday night in the Old Blaine County Courthouse conference room.

In his letter to Friedman Memorial Airport Authority chair Martha Burke, FAA official J. Wade Bryant checked off answers to a series of questions compiled by the airport authority in behalf of advocates and critics of a new airport.

For example, Bryant, who is Seattle Airports District Office Manager, dodged a clear-cut answer about funding a new airport on the traditional split of 90 percent federal funds, 10 percent local.

"The FAA would expect to support important AIP-eligible (airport improvement program) work items at a new site, depending on fund availability and competing demands from other eligible airports," Bryant wrote.

In anther paragraph, he replied that "based on experience with financing major airport projects, the sponsor (the airport authority) should not anticipate a majority of the funding from federal sources.

He suggested a combination of other funding sources such as federal aid, passenger ticket fees, local funds and bonding.

FAA's airport responsibilities generally include 90 percent funding of runways and taxiways, control tower, passenger areas of a terminal, fire and rescue equipment, navigational aids and land for the basic airport. However, funding always relies on what's available in the airport and airways trust fund.

Is the FAA requiring the airport to relocate?

Technically, no. Bryant wrote that the FAA has allowed Friedman to operate despite "deviations from FAA design standards" because "our judgment (is) that the airport can continue to be operated with existing aircraft types up to design category III."

One of the deviations is that when aircraft the size of Horizon Airlines' 78-passenger Bombardier Q-400 lands or takes off, FAA enforces a "signed agreement with the local airport control tower to clear the taxiways (of other aircraft) when a C-III commercial aircraft lands or departs." This is to avoid a collision with other aircraft in the event a Q-400 veers off the runway.

C-III is an FAA airport category designation based on the wingspan and approach speeds of aircraft. Friedman current is designed B-III and out of compliance.

However, Bryant's letter said that if either Horizon or Skywest airlines decides to use jets, "any future requests for modifications to standards to accommodate larger or faster aircraft would need to consider questions of these aircraft relative to the airport layout and applicable design standards" and "require added study."

Translated, even a change in the frequency or routes of Q-400 flights would require more study and FAA approval.

One contentious issue has been a proposal by members of the Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber and Visitors Bureau that the FAA give permanent waivers to operate Friedman as is.

But Bryant wrote that FAA "modifications to standards no longer apply to runway safety areas."

This relates to Friedman fully complying with its new C-III designation -- extending the runway, which would require more land acquisition, and separating taxiways from the runway, which would require possible relocation of a segment of adjoining state Highway 75, which the FAA is not requiring while a new site is being studied.

If the search for a new airport were abandoned, and Friedman's governing board attempted to retain the current airport for present operations, the FAA would require major physical modifications of the field.

The letter also posed something of a Catch-22. If Friedman finally begins operating an all-weather landing system that allows aircraft to fly in lower minimum visibility, Bryant wrote, the airport would need to "acquire or otherwise protect through easements the larger runway protection area."

And the FAA will issue no waiver from the C-III standard even if Horizon's four-engine Q-400 is not operating there. "Design standards apply equally to private or commercial aircraft," Bryant wrote, in reply to a question about the increased traffic of larger Gulfstream V and Bombardier Global Express corporate jets at Friedman.

In a closing comment in his letter, Bryant said the "major issues the community needs to address" in seeking a new airport site include aircraft size and frequency of service, proximity to population, weather reliability and a financial plan.

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