Friday, November 4, 2011

State legislators lend ear to airport concerns

MRGs, airport expansion top list

Express Staff Writer

Members of the Fly Sun Valley Alliance and the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority got the chance to share their sorrows regarding air traffic to Sun Valley with state legislators on Tuesday.

Reps. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, and Donna Pence, D-Gooding, joined Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, in a series of meetings with local elected officials and organization heads earlier this week.

The lawmakers were bombarded with concerns over everything from minimum revenue guarantees to site selection and the need for better community information regarding expansion or replacement of the airport. However, the solutions offered by the legislators were limited.

Eric Seder, president of the alliance, began the meeting by explaining that SkyWest, the Delta Airlines partner that provides commercial service to the airport, reduced the number of daily round-trip flight to Sun Valley in October and November. Seder said that while SkyWest cited decreasing demand, demand will fall further with the falling number of available flights.

"Our enplanements have remarkably tracked actual seating capacity," he said, adding that falling demand makes it difficult to maintain a certain level of commercial service, even while paying minimum revenue guarantees.

"Economically, it's a real challenge," he said. "Simply maintaining [air service] is a challenge these days."

Jaquet said there may be funding available for the alliance through IGems, a state-funded program sponsored by the Idaho Technology Council that is meant to promote economic development.

"I don't think [Gov. Butch Otter] is going to have a lot of money to spend on IGems," Jaquet said, but added that the alliance should make a request when Otter is in Sun Valley on Dec. 21.

Airport Authority Chair Tom Bowman updated the lawmakers on the replacement airport process and the recent controversy in Bellevue regarding possible expansion at the current site.

The authority and airport staff are studying how to increase reliability by potentially using more sophisticated landing procedures or making improvements at the current site, but Bowman told legislators that's only a short-term solution.

"In my opinion, which may not be shared by all FMAA members, this is an interim step," he said.

Bowman said keeping the existing site through expansion had drawn "emotional" testimony from Bellevue residents, and that the authority would be conducting a series of town meetings in Hailey and potentially Ketchum and Sun Valley to gain other public input.

Jaquet said she thought the meetings would help the process and clarify the issues involved in the airport process.

"I wonder if you're doing as good a job as you could be in educating people," she said.

Bowman also told legislators that the authority had considered asking for a special Federal Aviation Administration designation for Friedman.

Rather than striving for full C-III design compliance, which would allow regional jets and other planes with wingspans in excess of 118 feet to land at Friedman, the authority asked the FAA if the airport could be certified as a "mountainous airport" with more flexible design standards that would allow some C-III aircraft to use the airport.

Bowman said it was "not appropriate" to expect an airport in mountainous terrain to be able to accommodate all C-III aircraft, which would include Boeing business jets. However, he said the authority was told that the idea of a new designation was "quickly dismissed," as it would require a congressional order.

Jaquet said she was undeterred by the FAA's response.

"We can get a congressional action," she said. "We shouldn't just bag it."

The first of the town meetings, a business summit with the Wood River Economic Partnership and Sustain Blaine, is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 30.

Katherine Wutz:

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