This is the second of a two-part series on a possible new larger airport to be built to replace Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey at a site that may be outside the Wood River Valley.
Last week, Sun Valley Co. general manager Wally Huffman and Realtor Dick Fenton, who represents both the Sun Valley/Ketchum Chamber and Visitors Bureau and the city of Ketchum, expressed their concerns in a two-hour interview with the Idaho Mountain Express. Both are part of a 25-member Airport Site Selection Committee. The committee is advising the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority, which controls the airport in conjunction with the Federal Aviation Administration, on potential airport sites.
In this interview with Express reporter Pat Murphy, Friedman Memorial Airport manager Rick Baird responds to some of those concerns.
Click here to read the full transcript of the interview.
IME: Sun Valley Co. General Manager Wally Huffman and city of Ketchum and Sun Valley/Ketchum Chamber representative Dick Fenton expressed concern about a new airport an hour away (from Sun Valley) affecting service to the new airport.
Rick Baird: We went to SkyWest and Horizon [airlines] and asked for written comments and the study has had an expert in air service analyze the issue. They believe 40 minutes is reasonable; in writing they've said that. Our study team's analysis has indicated certain passengers would drive right by an airport at one of the three locations and go to Boise or Twin Falls where there may be a better fare or more options. But we also believe the difference will be made up recapturing passengers that won't fly because of the reliability issues at the existing airport.
IME: Let's talk reliability.
RB: Reliability is related to how low an aircraft can descend before making a decision whether to go to an alternate airport. Right now SkyWest flies to normally 2,500 feet (ceiling) and five miles (visibility) from the airport. So, if there are any clouds below a 2,500 feet elevation or between a point five miles from the airport, as a general rule they have to go to their alternate, normally Twin Falls. Horizon has better minimums; they fly to 1,900 feet (ceiling) and about 2.5 miles (visibility). So there are significant times in the winter where air carriers are flying to Twin and busing people. We've pursued technology since 1996 to get them to a lower point. We still believe there's a possibility we'll have some landing system this winter. But minimums are going to be still significantly different then what air carriers are used to. At Twin Falls and Boise, they are used to flying to as low as 200 feet and half a mile visibility. We believe 1,000 feet and 2.5 miles is achievable at Friedman. But what can't be solved are mountains that are in the vicinity of the airport.
IME: How serious is the problem of diversions?
RB: It's significant in different times. Two years ago we diverted flights (approximately) 13 days from Christmas to after New Year's. The same this year. So, at times the numbers are significant. Further away from winter the weather gets better and less diversions. But when our valley's customers are trying to get here for holiday reasons, the last few years the arrival rate has been horrible. Another thing we should talk about is the risk whether we stay or move. What air carriers are saying is that anything that changes the economics or their business plan and can be a rate hike will cause them to take a business look at their operations.
IME: What kind of a rate hike?
RB: The FAA has made it clear if the community makes the decision to stay, it's not as we exist. It's a fully compliant C-III airfield that meets our demands. And there is going to be a cost.
IME: Will you know what that cost is?
RB: We will report that to the board June 7. If you look at the 2004 Master Plan, just to achieve safety areas, not obstacle-free areas and all those other protected air spaces associated with an airport, was $40 million. We know one option would require acquisition of up to 30, 35 homes in Woodside. That is on top of the $40 million. So if the cost of staying is $40 or $50 or $60 million or maybe as much as going to a new airfield, a cost gets passed on to the air carriers. They're saying we have to make a business decision regardless of what you do.
IME: Critics say there was no consideration to moving the airport to the west as opposed to east.
RB: Not correct. They looked at shifting the runway to the south, to the east, to the west. So the conclusion that the board selected the most unpalatable option before deciding to see what was available site-wise is incorrect. Our principal guiding document was the preamble of 1994, which basically says when you reach the point where capacity and aircraft size require resolution, the solution will be away from the existing site.
IME: What was wrong with going to the west?
RB: You build a new airport. You tear everything down you've built and start from scratch—the terminal, all the hangers. The airport is closed for a couple years.
IME: One suggestion is a new runway be built alongside the existing runway on the west.
RB: If the new runway that you are building is inside the safety area of the first runway, you can't operate while the equipment is on the other one. It's physically not possible.
IME: Should an average person working in the Wood River Valley be worried about the impact of a distant airport on the economy?
RB: There are risks associated with moving. The data that we've gathered would indicate risks are minimal compared with staying. If you look at air service needs today versus five years from now, you come up with one answer. If you look at it from the perspective of 20, 30, 40 and 50 years from now, it's a totally different answer. The first time we see somebody mention the airport is in the wrong place is 1976 (in a) financial aid draft of the federal government; it acknowledges that to meet our future large airport or large transport needs the airport needs to be relocated. So we've recognized that for almost 30 years.
IME: What portion of this valley's economy is generated from air passengers?
RB: One criticism is that there is not going to be enough financial information gathered during the site study to whet the palates of everybody that's involved in this process. We acknowledge that. But there is a process that will follow this process that is called an EIS, an Environmental Impact Statement, where impact of moving will be a major part of the study. And so our mission, or the mission that the authority has placed on the study team, is: Is there a site or a solution to future demands and our present standard requirements from the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] at another site? The EIS will answer a lot of the questions that we can't, nor do we have the money to study at the current time. This is just step one in a process that will go on for at least three more years.
IME: If you have asked the Site Selection Committee to make a recommendation on an acceptable site, does that not mean in all ways or only technically?
RB: We are attempting to determine whether there is a site that physically can meet the demands of the area in the future, as well as the standards that the FAA has required both safety/obstacle areas. We will gather enough information to ensure that it is a feasible project.
IME: Physically feasible only?
RB: Physically feasible. We will have cost, which we already have associated with building on any of the three sites. And it will have a financing plan before we get to that point and some basic information or basic financial data we believe is necessary for the board decision.
IME: How can the [Friedman Memorial] Airport Authority decide to move forward, and how can the Site Selection Committee make a decision without what you are saying would be fairly extensive necessary data on what kind of impact a distant airport would have on the valley's economy?
RB: The study is an extensive study, but it doesn't answer all the questions. And I don't think you could answer all the questions until you get into the EIS part of this.
IME: Why didn't it contain it?
RB: The scope of work was developed with public input. It was developed with FAA input. And it's getting us to the point where we know whether or not there are options that the board can consider. It was never intended to answer every single question that can be asked about the project.
IME: When that scope of work was drafted, did you go to the valley's larger employers and did you go to valley businesses and say hey, what do you think should be in the scope of the study?
RB: The board meets every month. It's a public process. It didn't happen in one meeting; it happened in several meetings. So there was ample opportunity for people who were interested in participating in the process to participate.
IME: So the answer is no, you didn't call up large employers in the valley and say: Hey, you might be interested in this. It was left to them to notice that this was happening and that they had that opportunity to control the scope of work or have input into it.
RB: It was a public process that took place to develop the scope of work and anybody that wanted to could have participated in the process.
IME: Will the EIS then compare a recommended site to the existing site?
RB: The advisory committee will apply all criteria and they will rank the sites. First, highest, lowest of the three. But, depending on which site ends up the highest ranked site doesn't necessarily mean that that's going to be the committee's recommendation to the authority. It could very well be different than the physical ranking. Then there will be an opportunity for majority or minority opinions of the advisory committee so the authority has the ability to review those recommendations before they make a decision. We believe during the EIS that all 16 sites will be back on the table. There is a possibility of additional sites. How fast sites are eliminated will have to do with how well we did our jobs during the site selection process. Any site that has air space problems will be eliminated quickly.
IME: If those sites come back and they say it's going to reduce passenger service by 80 percent, is there any chance all the sites will be eliminated and it will be back in the lap of the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority?
RB: I can't address what the odds of the EIS coming back to the existing facility would be. The master plan that was adopted in 1994 is a no-growth document, and we're not expanding outside the fence. A very public process, over 30 meetings, took over two years. I think it is also significant to point out the board that made that decision was basically the Blaine County Airport Commission. By the time we got to the FAA acceptance part of it, the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority had been in existence. The Blaine County Airport Commission had 11 members on it. Sun Valley had representation, Ketchum had representation, all the valley's cities were represented as well as the owners. So the '94 document was a community decision.
IME: Would you agree that in 1994 the Blaine County Airport Commission really had no idea airlines were going to be converting to regional long distance jets?
RB: The '94 group was very visionary. They chose as the design aircraft the Dash 8-200, the turbo prop that Horizon flew, and the BAE 146, a four-engine jet that carries 90 passengers. They realized there's a physical limit to the amount of traffic, size or aircraft that can safely use the existing airport. It's basically in a box, mountains on three sides. Airplanes don't mix well with mountains. And they require huge areas of clear areas to operate safely. And the airport was probably a great small aircraft airport in its infancy. But we've been pushing the envelope for years.
IME: Are you saying that there are major safety issues at the airport?
RB: I've heard all we've got to do is write a letter to the FAA and ask for a permanent deviation (from safety standards). When I first heard that I said how ludicrous can you be? To write the FAA and say we want a permanent deviation from a safety standard. That's what we're trying to achieve, is safety standards. They are there for a reason. It's not to say that the airport is not safe, I work very hard to make sure that it is safe. But, if an aircraft anywhere else requires X to operate safely, then why can it operate safely here with less then those standards? The existing site, you can fix it. But that requires a significant, not just a small, expansion outside the fence.
IME: And the choice is between the eastern expansion and the western expansion, the condemnation of properties on the east side or closing up the airport for two years if you were to expand to the west. Correct?
RB: That is correct. An east expansion is going to have a huge impact on the largest city in the county. We've already looked at what it would take to rebuild a runway. We would be closed for summer, even with the east option. That's if the [city of Hailey] said you can work 24 hours a day. The quickest you could do it is 90 days. So I mean that's not a very palatable option either. And rebuilding at the existing site, close down for a couple years? And I'm sure when we apply the costs we know it's going to be expensive. It could cost as much to stay as it will cost to move.
IME: If you were to stay at this airport, how long would it be before we would have to move because of development, because of larger aircraft that couldn't use it?
RB: All indications are we've reached the point where the trigger's been pulled. We need to do something now. If you spent the $100 million or whatever to stay at the existing site, how long would that standard be acceptable to the FAA? Until the next group of aircraft that start using the airfield that exceeded standard. A few years until we're dealing with the same issues.
IME: The new site everybody is talking about is going to be at least twice as large, 600 acres minimum, and probably 1,200 acres.
RB: We would like up to 1,200.
IME: That's four times as large as now. That's not just for two airlines, SkyWest and Horizon. Does this envision other airlines using the airport?
RB: Sure. We plan on building a fully compliant C-III airfield that has the ability to expand and meet the needs of this community far into the future.
IME: If a new airport was outside of this immediate area, then it would also affect the regional access from Jerome, Gooding and Twin Falls and Buhl and wherever—a regional market?
RB: Our mission is to see if we can find a site that meets the aviation needs and FAA standards for this area. That area has been defined as Blaine County, Lincoln County, Camas County and some of counties over the top of the hill. Certainly a new site is going to draw passengers from Jerome, Gooding, depending on the options and ticket prices.
IME: Would that mitigate the concerns of the airlines that they are going to lose business?
RB: We've been held to a different standard then others are. And well it should be. But everything that we've done is in writing. We've presented to the advisory committee in writing, and support documentation is there for every conclusion or every decision the study team has made. We can get up and say the sky is black, and we better have a suitcase full of documentation to prove it's black. Somebody else can stand up and say the sky is white, requiring no documentation, and that has just as much weight as the information we've put forward. The Sun Valley/Ketchum Chamber and Visitors Bureau in the survey they took towards the end of the year, people in a very high percentage said that reliability is the most important thing to them. And over 55 percent said they would drive to an airport that was even 30 minutes away from the existing site.
IME: Sun Valley Co. General Manager Wally Huffman says that the reliability issue is the red herring. He says that last year, the average percentage of commercial flights diverted was 4 percent; three years before that there was a higher percentage. But have you compared the percentage of diversions now to the number of diversions that would exist at a new airport?
RB: The information we submitted to the advisory committee came from the air carriers, and we have not analyzed what the possibilities are going to be beyond the fact that all three of these sites have airspace that supports instrument approaches.
IME: Let's talk about cost. The number that's been bandied about is $100 million. There are portions for which the Federal Aviation Administration will pay 90 percent.
RB: The cost of the airport is thought to be somewhere around $150 million to $160 million. The public portion of that will be approximately $80 million. Of those projects that are eligible...
IME: The public portion meaning what?
RB: The government portion.
IME: Which government?
RB: The local owners.
IME: The local owners, $80 million?
RB: Yes, it is about $80 million. There's $80 million out there that would be private. I mean that's when we lease a piece of ground to develop a car rental lot or a hanger. That's private cost. The public cost is runways, taxiways, terminals, those things that we use.
IME: So $80 million public cost, where does that come from?
RB: When you look at federal money some projects are eligible and some are not. And the easiest way to determine whether they are or they're not is if it is a revenue producing cost, it's probably not eligible. If it's non-revenue producing, then it probably is eligible. The best way to explain that is to look at the terminal. Those parts of the terminal where people are going back and forth are public, that part is eligible. The part behind the counter, where the air carriers are, is space that's leased to air carriers and probably not eligible. Taxiways are eligible, runways are eligible, landing systems are eligible. So if the project is eligible, the federal government will participate through the Airport Improvement Program up to 95 percent today.
IME: So that still would leave the public on the hook for 5 percent.
RB: That's correct.
IME: Are there other portions of the airport where that would apply?
RB: If you build a parking lot and charge people to park there, it's a non-eligible cost. In other words, the local owners of the airport would be responsible for that. If it's non-revenue, it's going to be eligible. And so, if the whole thing was eligible, we could get participation at the 95 percent level. We would be competing against every other airport in the country if we start the process of moving towards the new site. So to write the FAA a letter today and say we've made up our minds, we want $80 million, that's probably not going to happen. Part of this study will put a finance plan together, and what is the cost, and how we get to the point where we can afford it.
IME: Do you have a sense of how the community would raise whatever portion it's going to be responsible for?
RB: There're a lot of possibilities. The existing site runs in the black, we pay our own way. There's no tax money involved in it and I think the board is going to find a way to get to the new site with as little burden on the valley as it possibly can. Whether or not that's achievable yet, we don't know.
IME: So you don't see that there is a possibility that this community could be faced with a consideration of a property-tax bond issue?
RB: The board's primary concern is to do this in a manner where the airport pays for itself, that taxpayers don't subsidize it. Remember there is a lot of land that's associated with the existing site. And a part of that was acquired with Airport Improvement Program funds. One option is to dispose of that property in a manner acceptable to the FAA and apply that money. How far down does that bring the $80 million? It's going to bring it in a significant way down. You may be going to the FAA and instead of looking at $80 million you may be looking at $40 million. In Seattle, the FAA is spending $1.5 billion just to prepare the site for the third runway; it doesn't include the cost of the third runway. In Wichita, they are spending $150 million on a terminal. And so we'll have to compete against all 438 commercial service airports and their needs at the time we make this decision. And we'll be competing for a fund that is not inexhaustible; there is a certain amount of money that is available every year.
IME: What if the FAA won't fund it?
RB: You are back to where we were in 1990 when the Coffman study was completed. The primary reason the community did not pursue a new site was they thought they had a certain amount of control over the size of airplanes that use the airport, which they did not, and because Denver International was under construction and the federal government said there was no money available for another site relocation. So that's when the decision was made to remain at the existing site.
IME: Where would that leave you?
RB: It would leave us in a very difficult situation because both owners have said we are not going to expand outside of the existing site. We need the airport to provide the air service needs that revenue potential that you've been talking about.
IME: What if a new distant airport was wildly successful?
RB: That is a distinct possibility. There are those that are really concerned that it won't be successful, but there are a lot of people who are concerned it will be (very) successful. This site study has done a spectacular job of getting the issues that are associated with this decision-making process, which may be the most important decision we make as a community in many, many years. The EIS should be a fairly simple process because we know what the issues are, the community has told us what those issues are through the last eight or nine months. This has been a painful process. Being in my position and the position of the board and for that matter those individuals that represent the companies that are as vocal as they are... .
IME: Which companies?
RB: Sun Valley Co., and the resort environment. There are three or four members of that [site selection] advisory committee that have been very vocal, they keep getting quoted. This can't be comfortable for them as well. But hopefully the bloodletting, to use a cliché, ends up making the final product better.
IME: What's the future of Friedman if there's a new airport?
RB: We're going to look at three options. The option of the commercial side of the equation moves, the general aviation stays. The FAA has made it real clear that if we do that the standards issue still remains, so it's still this expansion issue at the existing site. We were going to look at the existing site as currently configured and the FAA has made it real clear that's not an option. The next one is remaining a small airport for a certain size of class and everything else moves.
IME: Do you believe that air service at a new airport would need substantial minimum revenue guarantees [subsidies paid to airlines by business or government] to ensure existing service?
RB: Minimum revenue guarantees have become a huge item of discussion. The analysis that's been done believes the core service will remain. But we will still have minimum revenue guarantees to support the non-stop flights. Some of the problems we're having understanding is if the airport is in the [Bellevue] Triangle, if it's north of Highway 20, it will be fully successful. Well, if an airport will be completely successful at Highway 20 or north, why will it be unsuccessful 14 minutes or 14 miles further south? We're having a difficult time understanding that because this is within the reasonable distance air carriers have told us they will operate. Take the airport away, and say we need an airport. Who in his right mind would put the airport between three mountains, knowing there is going to be up to 20 percent diversion rates in the winter time, knowing that high performance aircraft are going to be flying in this mountainous environment, knowing that if you do expand, you are expanding inside the largest community in the valley. If we didn't have an airport and we were trying to make this decision, everyone would say this is absolutely the worst place to put it.