Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Tax to subsidize air service discussed

Express Staff Writer

Most members of the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority agreed at their monthly meeting April 4 that a mechanism for a special tax might be needed as a standby source of subsidies for airlines if serving the planned new airport requires guaranteed revenues to stay profitable.

However, the authority board postponed a decision on formalizing a request for state legislation and did not cite where any such possible tax might be imposed—if at all. Discussions will continue, members agreed.

Airport attorney Barry Luboviski said that "it makes total sense to start the dialogue" about possible special funding.

But Hailey Mayor Susan McBryant, who is also a member of the board, asked, "How can I endorse a new tax?"

Talk of special state legislation was prompted by authority member Len Harlig's draft statement, "Seven Steps to Understanding MRGs (Minimum Revenue Guarantees)," a primer in MRGs but also an argument not to rush decisions until thorough market analyses justify actions.

Harlig developed the document after repeated urgings from Ketchum real estate executive Dick Fenton, a member of the citizen site selection committee for the new airport and a member Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber & Visitors Bureau. Fenton has highlighted concerns about revenue needs of airlines to prevent them from reducing or abandoning service to a new distant airport.

A new airport to replace the Hailey field is planned to be built in southern Blaine County.

Fenton repeated his appeal at last week's meeting, suggesting that the valley is vulnerable to losing air service, while at the same time saying "I hope you don't characterize (my) efforts" as an attempt to keep Friedman operating as is.

Harlig maintains he doesn't anticipate lost service, and in fact foresees the addition of new airline service at the proposed new airfield at site No. 10, south of Timmerman Hill and east of state Highway 75 near the Blaine-Lincoln County line.

Initially, Harlig suggested to the board that his draft be published in local newspapers as an advertisement and copies distributed to other organizations and posted on Web sites.

However, that idea was nixed by the board. They agreed that distributing the document in the business community and posting it on various Web sites would be sufficient. "I haven't heard anyone outside of the business community talk about MRGs," said board member Dr. Ron Fairfax.

Meanwhile, another nagging issue popped up at the authority meeting—whether the Federal Aviation Administration can grant a safety waiver and allow Friedman to remain where it is.

Airport Manager Rick Baird said he continues to be asked about a waiver, which he has said the FAA does not grant and has produced FAA correspondence saying as much.

"I thought we had this one (issue) documented," Baird said. He later declined to say the source raising the waiver question.

The waiver dispute began originally last year after Maurice Charlat, a former Ketchum City Councilman and a member of the airport site selection committee, visited the airport in Aspen, Colo., which has a safety waiver because of the close proximity of the runway and taxiway.

Charlat told the Mountain Express he considers the waiver issue closed and has not raised questions about it recently.

Baird pointed out Aspen has FAA-authorized restrictions on the size of aircraft using the field, which Friedman is not allowed to impose because of regulations subsequent to the Aspen waiver.

Larger, faster airline and corporate aircraft now exceed FAA standards at Friedman. The FAA has told Friedman to expand or build a new facility.

Baird cited Aspen's size and location—more than 800 acres far from any concentrated residential development versus Friedman's less than 300 acres and surrounded by mountainous terrain and residential areas.

He told the board that Friedman now has some 20,000 landings and takeoff operations annually involving aircraft that exceed FAA safety standards for the airport.

The city of Hailey and Blaine County have voted not to expand Friedman, which would require extensive condemnation of adjoining business and residential property.

The new airport, if approved by the FAA, would open around 2016.

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