Friday, July 10, 2009

Choreographing the dance of ‘big iron’ at the airport

Airport crews scramble to handle abundance of corporate jets

Express Staff Writer

Atlantic Aviation ground crews prepare to move a Cessna Citation X to a new parking spot to make way for a larger jet. The influx of jets for events such as the Allen & Co. conference can make airport room scarce.

It lacks the delicate elegance of a ballet company performing Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake." But to airport groupies, there's agility and a certain dance-like quality about the performance at Friedman Memorial Airport when crews try to accommodate heavy influxes of aircraft.

Friedman Manager Rick Baird said the airport is besieged by such crowds of airplanes at least 21 days a year. They are drawn by special events, holidays and idyllic vacation weather.

The yearly gathering of media titans for the Allen & Co. conference is the largest such magnet, swamping the valley airport each July with corporate jets, known as "big iron" in aerospace lingo.

Mike Rasch is the general manager of Atlantic Aviation/Sun Valley, which provides parking and full service for visiting aircraft. He and Baird said the airport gears up weeks, even months, in advance of each event to handle the heavy inbound traffic.

"The best we can do is to stay out of the way and let Atlantic do its job," said Pete Kramer, airport operations manager.

Handling these squadrons has all the semblance of choreographing a stage production.

According to Friedman's engineering consulting firm, T-O Engineers, the airport has a total of 15.5 acres of parking space in less than 300 acres of total land at the airport.

Space can vanish rapidly, however. A 91,000-pound Gulfstream 550 needs almost 9,000 square feet to park, and it needs room separate from other parked aircraft. Other planes, still larger, need more space to get in and stay put for the weekend.

Baird said Friedman can park about 120 aircraft, give or take some, depending on sizes.

But not all of the airport's space is open for parking big planes. Other areas can only accommodate lighter planes. Baird has refused two landing requests for 255,000-pound Boeing 757s that need about 19,000 square feet of space, but also exceed Friedman's runway weight limits.

"We routinely turn away planes because of their size," Baird said.

Airport officials said several elements of the plane-parking dance require advance preparations. Factors include where to park aircraft based on size, what fuel supplies they'll need, security, what sort of control tower personnel are needed, and rescue and fire-fighting plans. They might also need to hash out what sort of catering arrangements for crews or passengers are needed or what kind of rental cars are needed and available.

In fact, Baird said, Friedman has become something of a textbook example of how to manage big iron in a small space. He says other airports sometimes send their managers to look over his shoulder to see how they do it.

"Airport managers are astonished," Baird said.

But even the proverbial best-laid plans can go awry. Baird recalled that during a large event several years ago, the Bureau of Land Management called to ask for space for a fire-fighting aircraft to handle a nearby forest fire. After aircraft at the packed airport were laboriously moved to accommodate the BLM, Baird said, the agency called back to cancel the request.

Rasch emphasizes Atlantic Aviation's role: Providing safety, security and full services for aircraft, crews and passengers, from fueling to providing on-board ice, newspapers and contact with local food caterers. Doing it just right, he says, accounts for so many aircraft owners returning to Friedman Memorial year after year.

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