The Friedman Memorial Airport Authority agreed Thursday that it will look toward a replacement airport as a long-term goal, but will seek Federal Aviation Administration approval for measures to improve reliability and increase passenger numbers at the current site.
As of last month, authority members and consultants were uncertain if improvements could have a significant impact on reliability at the existing site in Hailey.
Dave Mitchell, an engineer with consulting firm T-O Engineers, said Thursday that the "decision altitude"—the point at which a pilot must decide to either land or execute a missed approach—could be reduced to 1,000 feet at one mile from the airport. Minimums currently stand at 1,800 feet and three miles out, which causes problems in cloudy weather.
A lower decision altitude closer to the airport could improve reliability by 50 percent, Mitchell said, but could require new approach paths and more sophisticated equipment on the aircraft and on the ground.
"In any case, further analysis would be necessary," he said.
Perhaps the most discouraging report was that minimums could more easily be lowered using flight approach paths from the north. Approaches from the north—which travel directly over populated areas—might not garner adequate approval from public officials and Hailey residents. Though approaches from the south can be improved, Mitchell said, benefits would be relatively minimal, only preventing 15 diversions annually.
"Your overall reliability would still be relatively low," he said.
However, authority members said they were encouraged by the report.
"We have information that suggests, yes, we really can improve reliability," said County Commissioner and authority member Angenie McCleary. "If we can improve reliability, we can have the potential of getting FAA funding [for improvements] at the current site."
Other authority members said they aren't sure that saving 15 flights a year—roughly 800 passengers—would be worth the investment. Hailey City Councilwoman and authority member Martha Burke contended that the improvement would not be significant enough to gain federal funding.
"If we save 15 flight [diversions] a year, will the FAA throw money at that?" she asked. "No, I don't think so."
County Commissioner and authority member Tom Bowman pointed out that the number of passengers flying out of the airport has dropped by more than 13,500 since 2008—a drop that can't be attributed to reliability issues, as those have not changed over the past four years.
"I'm not sure if putting money into increased reliability is where money should be spent," he said. "We have to take a more holistic approach."
Burke argued that a replacement airport that could handle larger planes and increase the number of flights and passengers to the valley would have to be the solution.
"I don't think Hailey will support dramatic changes [to Friedman] and an airport that sits in the middle of the community in perpetuity," she said.
However, she added that the current site would need to be improved to support air service while the county is raising funds for a replacement.
"If we lose air service here, we lose FAA funding, we lose the tower, and we won't have any means to move an airport anyway," she said. "We [would] have no future."
Airport Manager Rick Baird said he would discuss possible improvements with FAA representatives, and would also ask the agency to restart an environmental-impact study for a replacement airport. Baird and the governing board have been cooperating for about a decade to establish a plan to relocate Friedman, possible in southern Blaine County. The FAA put the study on hold last summer, citing environmental impacts and excessive costs at the preferred site.
Much of the desire for the restart of the study is due to the fact that if it is never completed, none of the information will be released to the public.
Baird said that if the study comes back and the FAA has not identified a suitable place for a new airport, the county could then consider other options.
Katherine Wutz: firstname.lastname@example.org