Friday, October 6, 2006

Denver-Hailey flights could start by ?07 ski season

Express Staff Writer

The long-sought addition of new airline service to another major hub city seems nearer with indications by Denver-based Frontier Airlines it could inaugurate a daily Denver-Hailey roundtrip flight for the 2007-2008 ski season.

An optimistic representative of the Blaine County Travel Advisory Group, Maurice Charlat, told the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority Tuesday night that initial talks with Frontier had yielded positive responses.

Charlat, a former Ketchum City Council member, requested and received from the board a letter supporting the Denver service.

Frontier announced last month it is purchasing 10 new 74-passenger Bombardier Q400 turboprop airliners, the same type Horizon Air uses to serve Friedman on routes from Los Angeles, Seattle and Oakland.

The only other air carrier service out of Hailey is by Delta Airlines partner, SkyWest Airlines, to Salt Lake City on Brazilian-made Embraer turboprops.

In its announcement, Frontier said it would use the new Q400s to serve 18 Rocky Mountain communities. Its current 55 aircraft, all European-made Airbus jets, serve 57 U.S., Mexican and Canadian cities and Canada.

Frontier aircraft are distinctive—the name "Frontier" in gray letters literally covers both sides and the length of fuselages, while each plane's vertical stabilizer is emblazoned with the picture of an animal.

Charlat said that BCTAG, an offshoot of the Sun Valley/Ketchum Visitors Bureau, will decide soon on hiring a consultant to devise a formal proposal aimed at persuading Frontier to include the Wood River Valley in its new route plans. Charlat said a civic group also would be formed to meet with top Frontier officials to make a pitch for the community.

He credited Sun Valley Co. Marketing Director Jack Sibbach with fueling Frontier's interest.

Interviewed later, Sibbach said he had a meeting in June with Frontier officials to discuss serving the Wood River Valley. Sun Valley Resort several years ago hired a consultant to study whether a United Airlines link to Denver was feasible. The study supported such a route.

Sibbach said Frontier indicated that operationally it could launch flights to Hailey for the 2007-2008 season, and, if successful, the schedule could become a winter and summer operation.

However, he said Frontier might need a guaranteed subsidy the first year to offset start-up losses. Horizon Air required a minimum revenue guarantee from the valley resort business in its early phases of inaugurating service from California.

Frontier has another interest, Sibbach said—finding ways of retaining its position as the No. 2 airline at Denver International Airport (United Airlines is No. 1). Flights to the Sun Valley area could influence passengers to fly Frontier from distant cities.

One obstacle that would need to be considered, said Airport Manager Rick Baird, is whether the Federal Aviation Administration would approve more Q400 aircraft into Friedman.

The Q400, he reminded the board, is over the airport's standards.

"We need to keep in the back of our minds: Will the FAA allow aircraft above (airport) design? There'll come a time when we're pushing the envelope," and "the issue may be how we hold onto the air service we have now."

Added Baird: "This opportunity (Frontier service) could be taken away from us."

Friedman has been out of FAA compliance since the Q400 and larger corporate jets began operating at the airport because of their faster landing speeds and wingspans. This spurred the search for a new airport site, which the FAA has taken into consideration as it allows the larger planes to land and takeoff while all other traffic is halted.

To the question of whether more heavy aircraft would tax the airport's single runway, Baird said a new runway surface, to be built in the spring, could handle additional loads.

After citing the above-standards design of the Q400, Baird added he is fully supportive of Frontier opening up service to the area.

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