Friday, December 9, 2011

Airport board eyes approval for regional jets

SkyWest is confident larger aircraft could operate at Friedman


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

Regional jets could be approved for use at Friedman Memorial Airport before the end of 2012, if yet-to-be-specified changes to the airport's operating procedures are accepted by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Currently, SkyWest operates turboprop Embraer Brasilia 120 planes from the airport, but the airline has started transitioning from these planes to larger regional jets in some markets. Airport Manager Rick Baird said the possibility of SkyWest adding regional jets to its Sun Valley fleet was broached during a meeting with the airline on Nov. 22.

The Friedman Memorial Airport Authority voted to begin the process during its Tuesday meeting. If accepted, the changes would allow SkyWest's Bombardier CRJ700, CRJ900 and Embraer E-175 jet aircraft to land at Friedman.

The request must undergo a rigorous review by the FAA to determine what operating procedures would be necessary to provide an adequate level of safety.

Baird said the procedures might be similar to those required when Horizon Air's Bombardier Q400 aircraft are being operated at the airport—such as clearing the taxiways when a plane is landing or taking off.

"What we're talking about with the regional jets is that they are [aircraft categories] C-II or C-III," Baird said, which means they have a larger wingspan and faster approach speeds than do the commercial planes allowed to land at Friedman under standard procedures.

The FAA has recently rolled out a more complicated process of administering safety standards called a "safety management system." The process kicks in whenever a change to operational standards is requested, such as adding another nonstandard aircraft, though the new system will eventually be required at all airports. It requires a panel of experts from the FAA and the Airport Authority to meet and discuss potential risks and solutions.

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Dave Mitchell, consultant with T-O Engineers, told authority board members that he recommends beginning the process sooner rather than later—and before airlines actively request adding regional jets to their operations at Sun Valley.

"You need to know that [those] aircraft can operate here," he said, adding that the authority also needs to be aware of what improvements the FAA would require to minimize risk. "If the mitigation is that you have to move the highway, that changes things."

The evaluation comes at a critical time for Friedman Memorial Airport. Airport and county leaders have been working with the FAA to determine whether Friedman should be relocated, but the process was put on hold because of concerns about skyrocketing costs and environmental impacts.

A letter to the FAA approved by the board Tuesday states that the alternative operating procedures to allow use of the airport by the regional jets would be only temporary while the board "evaluate[s] the long-term future of the airport."

Airport Authority board member Ron Fairfax said he supports the request, if only because he'd prefer to know as soon as possible if regional jets could ever be approved.

"It's always scary asking a question you don't know the answer to," he said. "This will be a big question ... but it has to be asked."

SkyWest officials said they feel confident the airline could safely operate from Friedman for service to Salt Lake City and possibly nonstop to Denver.

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com

Authority to hire PR officer

The Friedman Memorial Airport Authority also voted Tuesday to enter negotiations with former Sun Valley Marketing Alliance leader Candice Pate to serve as a communications officer. For the full story, see our website, www.mtexpress.com.




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