Friday, March 7, 2008

Could Friedman lose air service before new airport opens

Older SkyWest fleet set to retire in 5 years

Express Staff Writer

SkyWest may retire its fleet of 59 Embraer Brasilia 120 turboprop aircraft, and that could spell trouble for continued air service to Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey. Photo by Mountain Express

The very real prospect that Friedman Memorial Airport could lose its longtime SkyWest Airlines service to Salt Lake City by 2013 was spelled out Tuesday night to the airport's governing board.

Airport Manager Rick Baird said SkyWest officials told him during a meeting last week at the airline's St. George, Utah, headquarters that the company probably would retire its fleet of 30-seat Embraer Brasilia 120 turboprop aircraft (59 now in service) that serve Friedman and other small Western airports by 2013, then continue expanding its fleet of Canadair Regional Jets (currently 220 in service), which carry 50 to 70 passengers depending on model.

Also at the meeting were airport authority Chairwoman Martha Burke and Sun Valley Co. Marketing Director Jack Sibbach.

Baird said airline officials also were emphatic that the Brasilias would not be replaced with another type of turboprop capable of serving Friedman, nor would they operate regional jets to Friedman. Baird quoted them as saying the jets cannot be economically operated out of Friedman. However, he also said the Canadair jets are above design standards for the airport because of their faster speeds and longer wingspans and would require waivers from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Presumably, SkyWest would inaugurate jet service into a large new airport planned to replace Friedman. But under the best circumstances and assuming no hitches or obstacles develop in site studies now underway, Baird said, the new airport could not be completed before 2016.

Ironically, one reason SkyWest has targeted 2013 as the Brasilia's retirement year, Baird said, is that the older turboprops are needed to get SkyWest employees in and out of St. George's old airport until a new $90 million-plus, jet-friendly airport is completed on a 280-acre site there.

As if that news wasn't disquieting enough, Baird reminded the board that the Horizon Air Q400 operating into Friedman also does not meet design standards and continues roundtrip flights to California and Washington under continuing FAA scrutiny and a set of airport rules that literally halt all other traffic into and out of the airport and on the taxiway when a Q400 is landing, taking off or taxiing.

The Q400's larger wingspan and faster approach speed exceed limits specified for Friedman. Taxiing traffic is halted and cleared because of the risk of ground collisions with the larger Q400.

Baird said that if tower controllers find workloads too heavy to conduct the special shutdown of the field during Q400 operations, the FAA could prohibit the big, twin-engine, 78-passenger Horizon Air aircraft from operating into Friedman, ending airline service.

In a later interview, Baird said the community "needs to pay attention" to the difficulties that lie ahead in trying to maintain air service to the Hailey airport. If SkyWest in 2013 does retire the Brasilias that make a half dozen or more daily roundtrips to Salt Lake City, and if a new airport isn't completed before 2016, the three-year gap possibly without SkyWest service would constitute an economic crisis.

Presumably, SkyWest would resume service with jets to a larger replacement field for Friedman, now envisioned as having an 8,500-foot runway with an all-weather instrument-landing system and a 1,200-acre site clear of any nearby terrain.

One possible stopgap remedy would be service to and from Denver by Frontier Airlines, which has placed Friedman on a long list of possible new routes. But Frontier also operates the Q400.

The FAA has said Friedman cannot be rebuilt to comply with existing and future safety requirements. The terrain on three sides of the airport also makes Friedman unacceptably risky, the FAA has said. A study of what would be required to bring Friedman to standards includes literally moving most of the airport and its buildings westward by rebuilding the runway and taxiway farther apart, relocating state Highway 75 on the east and condemning at least 40 homes in the Woodside area. The costs would be equivalent to a new airport at a larger site, estimates have shown.

Meanwhile, a multi-million-dollar environmental impact study is underway to determine where a new airport should be constructed. The EIS is expected to take two years and include sites in several counties outside Blaine County.

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