Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Airport manager hints regional jets coming

Baird tells Bellevue that replacement facility still a goal

Express Staff Writer

Wood River Valley residents may have something to say about development of a replacement airport, but they may have little to say about whether commercial regional jets fly in and out of Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey.

Airport Manager Rick Baird paid a visit to the Bellevue City Council on Thursday to provide information to a crowd that had gathered to fight ratification of a letter to SkyWest airlines stating that the city would welcome a study to see if commercial regional jets could fly to Hailey.

The letter was drafted by the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority and delivered to the city by authority member Tom Bowman. However, Bowman withdrew the letter before the meeting when he was told by City Council Chair Dave Hattula that he should not expect it to be signed because the council needed more information about regional jets.

Baird took about an hour to explain that regional jets are the thing of the future—more reliable and perhaps less expensive in the long run, allowing for flights to and from the West Coast and Colorado. He said SkyWest's Bombardier CRJ 700, which carries 70 passengers, twice the number as the SkyWest turbo-props currently in use, was test-landed at the airport about a month ago, indicating that air carriers could begin using the planes in the near future.

SkyWest broached the subject of adding regional jets to its Sun Valley operation during a meeting with the Airport Authority in November.

Baird said that if regional jets are restricted from flying here, the valley could lose commercial air service, a possibility the authority is charged with avoiding.

In any case, general aviation, including large private jets, will still have the run of the airport because in some respects they are in a class all their own.

"Private jets like the Global Express fly in already without a sterile runway [required for commercial traffic]," he said. "In the general aviation world, the pilot in command decides whether or not it is safe to land."

Baird said the CRJ 700 jets are smaller than the Global Express aircraft.

"If we lose commercial air service, the Federal Aviation Administration presence will be lost, but not general aviation," he said. "The impactful part of the airport will stay here. If a jet wants to take off in the middle of the night to go for a drink in Las Vegas and we ask them not to, they will call it a 'restriction of commerce.' At least with the FAA still here we can have them help bring some reason to this."

These issues have been on the table since August, when the FAA suspended an environmental-impact study aimed at building a new airport in southern Blaine County.

Baird cited data from local economic-development group Sustain Blaine that indicate that the valley is more reliant on tourism now that it was at the start of the recession four years ago, and that fly-in visitors are down from 10 years ago. He said people fly here less than before because of unreliable weather and ticket prices, but contended that regional jets could bring down prices due to a more efficient return on investment because they can carry more passengers than turbo-props.

"Ultimately, we have to convince the FAA that a replacement airport is a better return on investment," he said. "The more successful we are here [in Hailey], the more likely we will be able to convince the FAA that a replacement airport is a good idea. The FAA has to find the best place for their infrastructure."

In the long run, Baird said, that place could be at a new airport site because it would provide more reliability.

Baird said that before air carriers begin flying regional jets commercially to Hailey, they must begin an operations specifications approval process, which would lead to an environment assessment, which would require public input.

Baird dispelled a rumor in Bellevue that a $270 million expansion of the current site was being contemplated, instead of construction of a replacement airport at a cost of about $327 million—a goal that the Airport Authority has been working toward for some 15 years.

"It would be ridiculous to spend $270 million on an expansion, and the FAA already said in 1994 that this would be too impactful to the surrounding community," he said. "We've been partnered with the FAA since 1994, and it was the FAA which suspended the environmental impact statement. The Friedman Memorial Airport board did not create the economic conditions that put this in our lap. The Federal Aviation Administration said, 'We don't have the money.'"

Baird said Bellevue would have ample chances to comment about any changes to operations, or expansions, at the existing airport.

"It will be a very public process," he said.

Tony Evans:

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