Friday, August 6, 2010

Clock ticking on airport relocation

The clock is ticking on relocating Friedman Memorial Airport from Hailey to a site that can accommodate state-of-the-art aircraft. The evidence for relocation is becoming impossible to ignore.

The airlines that serve the Sun Valley area, Delta and Horizon, long ago put the area on notice that they would be changing out their fleets of turboprop planes and replacing them with smoother, larger, regional jets that need longer runways and wider safety zones for operation.

They weren't kidding. Today, nearly every airline in the country is rapidly replacing turboprops with regional jets.

For example, Delta Connection's SkyWest terminal—with its long hallway of gates at the Salt Lake City airport where flights to Sun Valley depart—was once surrounded by a long horseshoe of turboprop planes. This summer that horseshoe has become populated primarily by sleek regional jets that are more attractive to and comfortable for passengers, especially those who regard turboprops as something from an old black-and-white movie.

Meeting passenger expectations for comfort and scheduling is going to be key to generating business in the Sun Valley-area's resort economy over the long run. Thus, the ability of the area's airport to handle regional jets and larger aircraft is also key because otherwise passenger numbers may not rise to profitable levels for the airlines that fly them.

That's challenging in mountain resorts, to say the least.

Even seemingly invincible Aspen, Colo., woke up last week to find that two airlines, Frontier and Delta, have decided to drop service to the city in the winter.

Delta dropped flights from Salt Lake City because of unattractive scheduling that required passengers to leave on a 6 a.m. flight from the West Coast and scheduling that apparently made a direct flight from Atlanta uneconomical.

Frontier is leaving because it is phasing out its Q400 turboprops, and its remaining fleet of regional jets can't operate at full capacity because of terrain, altitude, weather and a too-short runway, the Aspen Daily News reported.

With the departure of the two airlines, Aspen lost 20 percent of the winter seats that had been available. Frontier alone offered 41,144 seats last winter and filled 26,155 of them.

United Airlines will remain as the sole carrier with service to Aspen.

The Sun Valley area has already experienced curtailments of air service and can ill afford to experience more.

The Federal Aviation Administration is evaluating locations for a new airport. Given Aspen's experience, the sooner a new all-weather modern airport is built, the better.

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