Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Airport relocation takes another hit

Officials skeptical project will advance in near term


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

Passengers board a SkyWest flight at Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey earlier this month. Airport officials said they might be able to increase reliability and reduce diversions through improving, not moving, the airport. Photo by David N. Seelig

Following two days of meetings among Federal Aviation Administration officials, airport staff and Friedman Memorial Airport Authority board members, the prospect of building a replacement airport in the near future seems to be officially off the table.

"My opinion is that a replacement airport is going to take more work to figure out where we're going to put it and how we're going to pay for it," said authority Chair Tom Bowman in an interview. "We have those challenges to solve, but we can't [just] do nothing right now."

During meetings on Oct.17-18, Bowman, authority member Martha Burke, airport Manager Rick Baird and administration staff members discussed approach procedures, weather forecasting and other ways by which Friedman Memorial Airport can reduce diversions and improve air service to Blaine County.

Currently, Bowman said in the interview, Horizon Air has to decide whether to land in Sun Valley rather than divert to Boise six hours before takeoff. Baird said these timelines are set by the airline carriers based on the amount of time it takes to get passengers and buses to the revised locations. SkyWest—which diverts flights to Twin Falls in bad weather—requires a decision to be made four hours before takeoff.

"That's why we have heard these stories of people being bused to the airport on a bluebird day," he said. "The weather will be crystal clear by the time the plane takes off."

More accurate weather forecasting could allow the airlines to recognize when a blizzard may clear by takeoff, reducing diversions, Bowman said.

He added that FAA staff was "very supportive" of attempting to improve the current airport, though staff members recognize the limitations of the airport's location.

"The FAA is sincerely in this with Friedman, and they want to help us," Bowman said. "They are really teammates in trying to come to a good solution."

Other alternatives include installing equipment for an on-ground navigation system, which Bowman said may need to be placed outside of the airport fence to avoid interference from the metal fencing. The system could reduce approach minimums and diversions as well as the number of missed approaches.

However, improvements at the existing site would keep the airport in Hailey for the foreseeable future. Baird presented a report to the Hailey City Council on Monday night that was greeted with an hour-long series of questions centering on the airport's long-term future.

South valley officials have expressed concern and even doubt over whether expansion of the airport is needed—and some residents have questioned whether the valley needs to retain commercial service at all. Bowman said that though he heard the opposing comments during several public hearings, he still believes commercial air service is crucial to the valley.

A 2007 study by the Idaho Transportation Department estimated that commercial airline passengers spend $52 million dollars annually in the area, with general aviation passengers contributing another $3.6 million.

"We've had regularly scheduled public transportation to this valley since 1936," Bowman said. "It would be hard to argue the valley would be the same without Union Pacific Railroad and the airlines."

County leaders and airport officials have been studying plans to relocate Friedman for about 10 years, after the FAA determined that Friedman does not comply with federal safety standards for certain larger aircraft. The FAA has allowed one such aircraft—the Q400 turboprop used by Horizon Air—to fly in and out of Friedman if special precautions are taken.

A plan to relocate the airport to southern Blaine County was put on hold earlier this year when the FAA announced it would not complete an analysis of the plan because of concerns about the cost and environmental impacts. The estimated cost had been set at more than $300 million.

The meeting with the FAA was also scheduled to be addressed during a special joint meeting of the Bellevue City Council and the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority on Tuesday night. For coverage of that meeting, see the Friday edition of the Idaho Mountain Express.

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com

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FMAA calls special meeting

The Friedman Memorial Airport Authority will hold a special meeting at noon Wednesday to discuss an amendment to the regulations governing airport taxi drivers.

The amendment would restrict terminal access to drivers who have a reservation or have already secured a passenger. Access is solely for the purpose of assisting with luggage or meeting a reservation, though drivers are allowed to use airport facilities when commercial flights are not on the ground.

New regulations would require stricter dress and vehicle appearance codes. The regulations also give airport manager Rick Baird the power to suspend drivers who don't adhere to the proposed rules.

An earlier version of the ordinance stirred up controversy in July when taxi drivers protested language that would have restricted all access to the terminal.

Drivers said the airport was too strict when it comes to limiting access to the terminal and customer contact. The language has since been changed, but the dress codes are still included.

The meeting will only be the first reading of this amendment. Two more are required before passage. The authority will convene at noon on Wednesday, Oct. 26, at the Blaine County Courthouse in Hailey.

Schoen apologizes for memo snafu

Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen issued a written apology via a press release Monday for broaching the issue of eminent domain in a memo to Friedman Memorial Airport Manager Rick Baird earlier this month.

Schoen said the memo was only meant to be used in case other members of the authority raised the question of acquiring part of the Flying Hat Ranch south of Hailey for airport expansion. He was out of the country for the meeting, but said he wanted to make his position clear.

However, the letter was vague enough to include the possibility of acquiring "any lands that could be determined to be necessary for expansion of Friedman Memorial Airport," including homes east of Highway 75.

Schoen's written apology states that he didn't mean to include those homes.

"The memo was intended to refer only to vacant farmland south of the Airport and not to any other lands," he wrote. "The memo was written in response to a specific request for it from the landowner's representative."

Schoen said he regrets the fallout the memo caused.

"I regret and apologize sincerely to my community for the anxiety and confusion this memo caused," he said. "No matter my intentions, the effects have been negative."




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