Friday, December 19, 2008

Signs of winter: diverted airline flights

Express Staff Writer

They've been called a major public relations problem for Sun Valley's reputation as a world-class ski resort. However, they're as inevitable as the coming of winter snows.

"They" in this case are airline flight diversions and cancellations due to Friedman Memorial Airport's weather conditions involving low cloud ceilings and poor visibility.

According to studies by the consulting firm Landrum & Brown, which is studying possible new airport sites, an estimated 14.7 percent of all SkyWest Airlines and Horizon Air flights are diverted to alternate airports between November and March, and some 4.6 percent of all inbound and outbound flights are cancelled because of inclement weather.

The airport does not have an operational all-weather landing system approved by SkyWest and Horizon. However, an inoperative $1 million Transponder Landing System has been installed but not certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. SkyWest has discussed using it, but no decision has been made.

When flights are diverted, SkyWest aircraft land at Twin Falls. Horizon Air diverts its flights to Boise.

However, the air carriers have differing policies on providing diverted passengers with ground transportation to the Wood River Valley.

According to SkyWest spokesperson Marissa Snow, bus transportation is provided passengers when flights are cancelled at Friedman and flights are diverted to Boise enroute from their origination point in Salt Lake City.

A slightly different arrangement is used by Horizon. Corporate spokesperson Jen Boyer told the Mountain Express that passengers bound for Friedman Memorial are warned when weather conditions make arrivals questionable. Passengers then have the options of being rebooked or receiving a fare refund.

If they continue and the flight is diverted to Boise, she said, Horizon "will do our best" to arrange for continuing transportation to Friedman. If the flight is canceled at Friedman, the same arrangement applies, she said. However, if a cancellation is due to a maintenance problem or other circumstances under the control of Horizon, she said, the airline would be obliged to arrange alternate travel.

Roundtrip bus service by Sun Valley Stages between Sun Valley and Boise is available twice daily, leaving Sun Valley at 7:30 a.m. and 10 a.m., and departing Boise at 1 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.

One member of the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority, Len Harlig, who says flight diversions and cancellations discourage repeat visitors to the area, has suggested staffing buses with a guide to fully explain to diverted and cancelled passengers the reasons for interrupted flights and also provide a running monologue on the pleasures of the Sun Valley area. No such program has been developed, however.

A replacement airport for Friedman will include state-of-the-art electronic navigational aid systems that will allow landings and takeoffs in most inclement weather conditions.

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