Wednesday, June 29, 2005

FAA 'warning' and petition fire up Hailey airport debate

Can't live in the past, Airport Authority member pleads

Express Staff Writer

The controversy stirred up by the search for a possible new airport at a site that some fear would be too far a distance from the current Hailey field heated up this week in a fusillade of shots fired by defenders and critics of the site search.

Latest developments in the debate over possibly relocating Friedman Memorial Airport include:

· Builder and former Sun Valley Mayor Dave Wilson began circulating a petition aimed at pressuring the Airport Authority to drop any talk of moving Friedman. Wilson is a general aviation pilot and aircraft owner.

· The Federal Aviation Administration seemed to warn the community in memos that any attempt to interrupt work at complying with FAA safety standards could result in a decision "to withdraw authorization for their (Friedman's) scheduled air carriers to operate into Friedman Memorial Airport with aircraft larger than design group B-III."

· The 405,000-member Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association has formally opposed restricting air traffic at Friedman on July 5 and July 10 for several hours to aircraft on instrument flight plans, and asked the FAA to countermand the airport rule. The airport has modified the rule allowing visual flight rules pilots to file for landing slots during the heavy-traffic hours of the Fourth of July holiday that includes the arrival and departure of corporate jets for the annual Allen & Co. media conference.

· The FAA also confirmed that if a new airport site is designated, an environmental impact study also would automatically include an analysis of economic impact of a new locale.

The week's most sobering development came in several FAA memos that clearly suggest some Friedman airline operations could be jeopardized.

The heart of this problem lies with Friedman's FAA classification as a B-III facility that allows operations of C-III air carrier aircraft, categories defined by aircraft wingspans and landing approach speeds.

Horizon Air's four-engine 78-passenger Bombardier Q400 is C-III.

In what is described as mitigation of the problem and a permissible deviation from standards, the Q400 operates because the Friedman control tower orders all other aircraft off adjoining runways during its landing or takeoff.

In one memo from the FAA's Airports Division, FAA official Bill Watson informed Airport Manager Rick Baird that despite the search for a new airport site, "the sponsor (Friedman Memorial Airport Authority) must continue actions to meet standards at the existing airport." He also said, "If the sponsor chooses not to move forward with this higher priority work, discretionary funds would not be made available for lower priority work."

In a separate FAA memo, Herman Ross of the Northwest Mountain Region's Flight Standards Division, cautioned that although the FAA is pleased with Friedman's efforts to achieve C-III compliance, "additional air carrier operations into the airport requiring ATCT (air traffic control tower) mitigation action may be justification for the ATCT to discontinue mitigation and result in the withdrawal of (FAA) deviation (from standards)."

This could result, the memo said, in canceling approval of operations of above-airport-standard aircraft, such as Horizon's Q400.

Meanwhile, the petition drive to keep the airport in Hailey seeks 10,000 signatures, according to Wilson.

Signers of the petition, it reads, "demand that the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority abandon the idea of moving the airport to any other location." They suggest Friedman be made "the safest possible within the current land constraints." Owners of the field, the city of Hailey and Blaine County, have already voted not to expand outside the boundaries of the 230-acre airport.

Ideally, airport consultants envision a new facility of 600 to 1,200 acres and perhaps two runways to meet regional needs for 50 years.

Wilson's business partner, James Woodyard, 61, was killed in November 2003, when the single-engine Cessna 210 he was piloting crashed into a mountain peak a few miles south of Friedman during stormy nighttime weather.

One of the first repudiations of Wilson's petition, by Friedman Authority board member Len Harlig, cited those factors as among reasons a new airport is a needed.

"Friedman Memorial Airport is a weather-afflicted, diversion-prone, accident-sensitive, topography-limited, safety-challenged, neighborhood-disruptive, land-locked and future-growth-limited facility that will not serve the long-term needs of air transportation for Blaine County," Harlig wrote in an e-mail to fellow board members of the Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber and Visitors Bureau. "At some point it will have to move."

"Our community will be better prepared for its future if we all work together for that future than if we squabble about how to live in a past that can't be adequately corrected," Harlig stated.

Airport Manager Baird also warned that the FAA "is willing to work with us" in allowing deviations from standards while current improvements to the airport are made, including a $4.5 million expansion of a safety area at the southeast end of the runway.

He said that if new air service from Denver in a C-II category United Airlines Canadair CRJ 70 begins to Friedman, the FAA may need to review safety conditions again.

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