Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Weekend storms costly at Friedman

Heavy snow interrupts air travel

Express Staff Writer

A Horizon Air turbo-prop takes off from Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey. Photo by Mountain Express

Sun Valley can be added to the lengthy list of areas across the nation whose airport operations were disrupted by powerful, wet storms over the weekend. With nearly 20 inches of snow reported fallen in Hailey between Saturday morning and Sunday night, Friedman Memorial Airport suffered from numerous cancellations and diversions during one of its busiest weekends of the year.

While powder hounds could be heard hooting and hollering on the slopes of Bald and Dollar mountains, people trying to fly to Sun Valley—and those trying to get them here safely—faced a blizzard of weather-related challenges.

Horizon Air planned to begin its daily nonstop flights from Seattle and Los Angeles to Hailey on Saturday. Its first flight into the airport landed at 5 p.m. Monday. For the third year in a row, the airline's first weekend of winter operations into the Wood River Valley was disrupted.

According to a spokesperson at SkyWest Airlines, which offers eight daily flights into Friedman from Salt Lake City, the airline only got about half its flights into Hailey on Saturday, and none on Sunday when the snow was heaviest. By Monday, SkyWest was operating normally into and out of the airport.

Friedman Manager Rick Baird explained some of the hurdles facing his crews.

"It was really tough on our snow-removal crews," he said. "We had five guys working on Saturday during the day and three on all that night. Sunday we had five guys on all day and five again all night."

But Baird noted that even though flights were canceled or delayed due to the weather, none was affected due to conditions on the ground at Friedman.

"When it was safe to fly, we were open and operating," he said. "When it (the snow) got really heavy on Sunday morning and again Sunday evening, we closed the airport and let our snow removal crew work without worrying about air traffic."

The airport was closed on Sunday between 7:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. and again from 5 p.m. until 7 a.m. Monday morning. When flights cannot land at Friedman, they are diverted to Twin Falls.

However, the weekend's storm proved costly. Baird estimated that 70 percent of Friedman's anticipated arrivals, both commercial and general aviation, were lost over the weekend, meaning a sharp drop in airport revenues. From concessions and parking fees to jet fuel charges and landing fees, no aspect of the airport's operations was spared.

"It's not just the immediate losses," Baird said. "How many of those people who planned their first short visit here and missed out will never try again?"

In a resort community where the vast majority of visitors are return customers, it's a question worth considering.

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