Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Needed: leader who will stop airport pussyfooting

The news looked good on the surface.

Last week, aviation experts said installing satellite-driven navigation equipment on commercial aircraft that use Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey could improve access dramatically in cloudy weather.

The good news ended there, and the "yeah, buts" began.

Yeah, but the airport is lined on both sides by high mountains that make dealing with missed approaches difficult.

Yeah, but key airlines may not step up and make the investment in the necessary equipment.

Yeah, but will the Federal Aviation Administration approve such a system?

This is a scenario with which the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority is painfully familiar. It's a scenario that has repeated itself over and over during the past 30 years of operations at the airport. One result has been glacial movement in finding solutions to the issues that plague the airport: geography, winter weather and airline decisions to move to larger aircraft that are not easily accommodated at the airport. Another result is interminable pussyfooting around.

In the middle of all this is the FAA's sphinx-like demeanor. It looks all-knowing and acts all-knowing, but more often than not puts local leaders in the position of supplicant with no way of knowing exactly how to get FAA approval.

So, the airport problem gets passed on from administration to administration despite the efforts of elected officials in Blaine County and Hailey, the two government groups responsible for the airport.

In the meantime, businesses and investors are left in limbo. Should they stay or go? Should they invest or not?

The lack of decisions makes employment precarious. That makes attracting younger generations of people to the valley difficult—or impossible. Yet, Sun Valley area leaders have said repeatedly that local marketing should be directed at those 18-35 years old and younger. But if they come here and don't see themselves represented in the local population, it makes it less likely they'll make friends who bond with the area for a lifetime.

The airport is an issue looking for a leader—perhaps the governor, a congressman, a U.S. senator or an FAA official—who can cut through the FAA's mysterious bureaucratic layers, engage commercial airlines and aviation consultants and get a majority of the Sun Valley area's population to agree.

The Sun Valley area is important to Idaho's economy. An airport solution that arrives another decade from now will be a decade too late for businesses, investors and younger generations that may want to carve out lives in our beautiful mountain towns.

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