Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Decisions on airport are imminent

The Friedman Memorial Airport Authority board is composed of Chair Tom Bowman, Vice-Chair Martha Burke, Secretary Susan McBryant, Don Keirn, Angenie McCleary, Larry Schoen and Ron Fairfax.


The Friedman Memorial Airport Authority had been working directly with our consultant team and the Federal Aviation Authority since 2006 to complete an environmental impact statement analysis that would have enabled us to site, design and build a replacement airport. Then, in August 2011, the FAA suspended this EIS process, citing environmental and cost concerns.

The suspension has allowed the community to evaluate all potential options. The FAA made clear, however, that Friedman Memorial Airport still does not meet certain standards and that significant, weather-related reliability issues exist. The FAA has not said that the airport will close as a result of these factors, but commercial service as we know it could be at risk. The agency asked us to go back to the community, determine a path forward and let it know what we want to do. After doing just that, these next steps are becoming clear.

What we know

- Commercial air service is critical to Blaine County's economic well-being.

- Building a replacement airport faces significant financial headwinds in the current economic climate.

- Friedman has reliability issues and design deficiencies that could result in diminished commercial air service.

- Due to grant assurances, the airport cannot be closed, even if commercial service was discontinued.

- Improving regional air service will involve regional jet service and a stable source of funding for marketing and support.

Where does that leave us?

There are two options, which are not mutually exclusive. One is to plan and implement improvements at the airport, including enhancing reliability. This would bring us into closer compliance with FAA standards and improve the project's financial profile. The other option is to continue to pursue a replacement airport. 


Improvements at Friedman

Aviation technology has advanced significantly in the past few years, especially in the area of NextGen, the FAA's comprehensive, long-term plan to modernize today's radar-based air traffic control system. As a result, preliminary analysis indicates reliability can be improved at the airport. The next step will be to seek FAA approval to initiate an Airport Layout Plan to address the design deficiencies. A thorough exploration of alternatives may include scenarios that take us "outside the fence," but an Airport Layout Plan will provide those options, their costs and associated environmental impacts. No shovel will break ground before the community has weighed in on these scenarios.


Pursuing a replacement airport

It is important to demonstrate to the FAA that we are committed to finding a resolution to reliability issues and design deficiencies once and for all.  A replacement airport is likely the best long-term solution for this valley. Critical components in the replacement airport process would include the evaluation of operational feasibility, identifying additional or new funding sources, locating a feasible site and building community support.


Short-term/long-term solutions

After soliciting community feedback and getting a good understanding of the concerns, we are now able to set a course to pursue both options. We have directed airport Manager Rick Baird to work with the FAA, to share our reliability findings and passenger demand analysis, to initiate discussions for an Airport Layout Plan and to understand the best approach to pursue the replacement airport. We believe this approach will help us carve out short-term, medium-term and long-term answers to this very challenging situation. We must act swiftly to preserve air service today and plan strategically for the future. The time has come for decisions and we are prepared to make them.

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