Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Billionaire McCaw denies stealth role in Camas airport talk

Express Staff Writer

Billionaire businessman-pilot Bruce McCaw on Monday joined critics of closing and moving Friedman Memorial Airport, saying the decision is being driven by "local politics" and has "ludicrous" justifications. At the same time, he put in a good word for Camas County, where he's an extensive landowner, as a possible site for a new airport.

A wide-ranging, hour-long telephone conversation with McCaw, a Seattle-area resident who owns a home in the Ketchum area and an interest in a large hangar at Friedman Memorial, was prompted by a Mountain Express story on March 26. The story quoted Camas residents as speculating that McCaw, reportedly the largest land owner in Camas County, and actor Bruce Willis, the leasee-operator of Soldier Mountain ski area, were interested in building an airport to boost tourism there.

McCaw said with some irritation that he was "extremely unhappy" about the speculation, and questioned whether the Mountain Express should "speculate about private individuals."

When asked whether he and Willis had a business alliance, McCaw said no, that he only knows Willis "casually."

He said he has "a substantial interest" in Camas County, but "that's all I'll say." Asked if he had plans for an airport or was promoting an airport project, he said no.

However, he said, "some of the best sites" are in the Camas area, especially because land is relatively inexpensive. McCaw's property and Willis' smaller tract, both east of Fairfield, together would fulfill land requirements for an 8,500-foot runway and surrounding buffer land that could total 600 to 1,200 acres.

As a reminder, he said, preferred new airport sites picked during a 1990s discussion of closing Friedman were in Camas County, including the so-called Moonstone area.

However, he said "the whole process" for justifying a new distant airport is "a joke."

"I don't think anyone thinks it's going (to be built) farther south," he said.

A site east of state Highway 75 near the Blaine-Lincoln county line has been tentatively tagged as a preferred locale.

He complimented Fairfield Mayor David Hanks as being "sensible" for writing the Federal Aviation Administration to sign on as a possible sponsor or cosponsor for an airport to replace Friedman Memorial. McCaw said it is "unfair (of critics) to pick on any officials trying to do a decent job. It's irresponsible."

McCaw, in his late 50s, said he's been flying in and out of Friedman Memorial for 30 years. He owns and pilots jets, and is a prominent financial supporter and trustee of Seattle's world-famous Museum of Flight, a prodigious collection of nearly 200 large and small civilian and military aircraft that flew during the 20th century. He and his three brothers made their fortunes from the $11.5 billion sale to AT&T of McCaw Cellular in 1993.

Coincidentally, McCaw was a co-founder and served as vice president of Horizon Air in the 1980s before it was sold to Alaska Airlines.

During the conversation, McCaw also said the pilot and aircraft-owner communities have not been adequately heard during the debate over closing and replacing Friedman Memorial Airport. However, site-selection committee hearings for more than a year as well as public meetings leading up to the current environmental impact statement study have all be open forums for discussion by proponents and opponents of closing Friedman.

He said emerging on-board flight technologies would make it possible for aircraft to eliminate any safety issues to use Friedman Memorial during inclement weather. That, he said, would remove one of the chief arguments for closing Friedman.

He also repeated a suggestion made by others about modifying Friedman—moving the runway slightly south toward Bellevue.

In the past, the FAA has said that any major proposed modification to the field would be tantamount to building a new airport and thus require extensive environmental and economic studies.

Another proposal voiced in the past would be to retain Friedman as a privately owned facility for corporate and other general aviation. However, that would require substantial private funding for management and operations, as well as approval of the city of Hailey, which already has declared its intentions to replace Friedman.

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