Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Expert: Airport 'authority' is financially more efficient

Panel hears ideas on best-run airports

Express Staff Writer

With two public meetings now under its belt, a six-member Blue Ribbon Commission seeking ideas on how a new airport should be governed is headed for a third session. The meeting will be held March 4 in Hailey City Hall to solicit more views on running a replacement facility for Friedman Memorial Airport. A time has yet to be set.

In the second of a series of listening meetings on Feb. 18, the committee representing valley cities and Blaine County Wednesday heard from general aviation pilots and a Denver attorney who's studied the governing structures of airports.

During the session in Ketchum City Hall, committee Chairman Tom Bowman, who's also chairman of the Blaine County Commission, interrupted to suggest there may be a need and place for two bodies for a new airport—one to advise on the design and construction of a new field and the other a permanent board to set policy for the facility.

The blue-ribbon panel makes no decisions. Instead it will be hearing from various interest groups before making a recommendation on the type of board that should run a new airport tentatively designed for construction in south Blaine County east of state Highway 75.

In lead-off statements at the last meeting, Jim Perkins, president of the Blaine County Pilots Association, and Jay Hagenbuch, co-owner of a Sun Valley Air Lear 60 charter jet operating out of Friedman Memorial Airport, said general aviation pilots would like to have a hand in picking a representative for the airport's governing board. General aviation, which includes small aircraft as well as large corporate jets, generates 30 to 50 percent of Friedman's revenues through landing fees, fuel charges and tie downs, according to Friedman Memorial data.

One pilot and aircraft owner, Dr. Ron Fairfax, is a member of the airport authority.

Talking gingerly around the issue, Perkins said, "No reflection on the current representative (Fairfax), the way he's elected sometimes (makes him) hold back because he's worried he might not be re-elected."

Bowman corrected Perkins: Fairfax isn't elected, but appointed.

Bowman suggested that general aviation interests could nominate a general aviation member for the airport board.

"We would consider that," Perkins said.

In response to a question from Sun Valley Mayor Wayne Willich, Perkins said the 130 pilot members of his group are a diverse collection of recreation and business pilots.

Hagenbuch said operators of larger jets have a single priority: "We don't want to end up with an airport that doesn't work for privately owned aircraft." He said a significant portion of the local economy is supported by second-home owners with aircraft, who have been underrepresented in airport decision-making.

General aviation did have representatives on the citizens' site selection committee that pared down likely sites for a new airport, from the Blaine County Pilots Association, Sun Valley Aviation (now Atlantic Aviation) and aircraft charter operators.

In final statements, attorney Daniel Reimer, of the Denver firm of Kaplan Kirsch & Rockwell, said he has devoted his practice to aviation for the past 11 years, including a special study of how airports in the U.S. are governed by cities, counties, states and city-county arrangements.

"There's some evidence that airport authorities are more financially efficient than airports run by general-purpose governments," Reimer said.

A five-member authority governs Friedman. Reimer's firm also has been special legal counsel to Friedman Memorial.

One of the panel's members, Ketchum City Councilman Charles Conn, also a pilot, introduced a pie chart showing that 79 percent of the assessed property values in Blaine County lie in Ketchum, Sun Valley and north Blaine's unincorporated area.

"It's not so much that (our) houses are worth more," Conn said, but residents of that area "are nervous about location of an airport and afraid we will be cut out of decisions."

Conn also seemed to resurrect claims made in the past by Ketchum real estate executive Dick Fenton by saying that "the FAA gives waivers," hinting that Friedman Memorial's fate isn't sealed and with an FAA waiver might continue to operate.

FAA officials have declared that Friedman was not designed to handle the larger aircraft now using it, such as Horizon Air's Q400 and larger corporate jets such as the Gulfstream V and the Bombardier Global Express, and have pointed out problems with the surrounding terrain. They have said in several public meetings that the airport would be granted no waiver.

As for Conn's concern about the north valley area being included in decisions, airport records show that since study of a new airport began with a 2004 master plan, a citizens' site selection committee of 25 stakeholders and 25 alternatives (including general aviation and north valley representatives) met publicly 10 times. At least 20 airport authority meetings included discussion of a new airport, three public hearings and one public workshop were held, a Web page was created with information about studies, the FAA and consultant Landrum & Brown held at least 10 briefings for the public and community officials, and airport Manager Rick Baird held 10 informative public get-togethers throughout the Wood River Valley and Lincoln County.

Rock-a-bye Baby

Levity broke the serious tone of the airport study group's meeting when Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall, sitting in the back of the council's chambers with his 11-week-old daughter, Addie, rose and began to leave.

Blaine County Commission Chairman Tom Bowman called out his thanks to Hall for the use of the chambers, noting, too, the baby carried by Hall in a portable bed.

"I brought her to the meeting," Mayor Hall said with tongue firmly in cheek, "knowing it was the quickest way to put her to sleep."


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