It's been more than a decade since Horizon Air first delivered passengers to Friedman Memorial Airport in a regional jet, the Dutch-made Fokker F-28, but commercial jet service, albeit a quieter, cleaner version, may soon be on the Hailey horizon again.
"The aircraft was one of the noisiest jets that were made," said airport Manager Rick Baird on Tuesday at a meeting of the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority.
Horizon has been using the Bombardier Q-400 turboprop since it suspended jet service.
A newer, quieter Bombardier, the CRJ-700, a 70-passenger jet operated regionally by SkyWest, has the same seating capacity as the Q-400 and may satisfy the short-term mission of the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority "to allow the airport to survive and thrive until the new airport is a reality," Baird said during a report to the board with T-O Engineers consultant Dave Mitchell.
The report summarized recent discussions with the Federal Aviation Administration about use of the existing airport for commercial service with mid-size jets. Baird said the FAA is warming up to the idea.
"It's a totally different way of looking at the site than we've ever looked at it before," Baird added in an interview. "It's a matter of moving things around. There may be some minimal expansion to stay whole."
He said an agreement that already allows the Q-400 to land and take off when all taxiing aircraft on the field are halted and held in position away from the runway could soon be signed with the FAA to include jets like the CRJ-700 operating under similar procedures. An added step of completing an environmental assessment of noise and air pollution impacts would also need to be completed before the FAA signs off on the concept.
According to FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer, airlines typically pay for such an assessment but can ask the airport to do so. The board asked Baird to follow up in June with a proposal for how to get the environmental assessment completed. Board members acknowledged that moving ahead with an environmental assessment, which could cost between $25,000 and $100,000, does not guarantee that regional jets will be able to fly into the airport.
Board members echoed member Martha Burke's comments that shuffling features at the Hailey airport could be a viable short-term solution until the board in conjunction with the FAA can again look at moving forward with a replacement airport, the board's ultimate goal.
"I am certainly ready to pursue this aggressively and follow the nontraditional approach," Burke said.
Baird said SkyWest's 30-passenger Embraer 120 Brasilia, which currently serves Friedman, is an aircraft that, like the Q-400, is on its way out. He stressed that newer regional jets like the CRJ-700, a C-II classification aircraft (the letter is for approach speed, the numeral is for wingspan) is where the airline industry is headed in terms of regional air service.
Before jet service can begin, an environmental assessment must also be completed. Among other things, the environmental assessment studies the impact of the aircraft on surrounding neighborhoods.
As part of the presentation to the Airport Authority, Mitchell said the C-II standards for safety and concerns about sufficient separation between runways and taxiways and hanger separation could be alleviated by reconfiguring the airport somewhat. He also said that slightly enlarging the footprint, allowing things that are already there to stay, could help make Friedman comply with FAA standards.
Mitchell said the community can now get into answering the question of what is feasible jet service at Friedman.
"In your mind, Mr. Mitchell, what do you mean by what is feasible?" asked County Commissioner Larry Schoen, also an Airport Authority board member, who said he too supports the alternative path toward sustaining commercial air service to the community.
Mitchell said that for him, the difference between possible and feasible has to do with things like moving state Highway 75, which would involve unacceptable cost and community impact.
Baird added that when the community considered paying $50 million to move the highway years ago, it instead chose to pursue moving the airport. As that is currently off the table, the current milestone is that the FAA is willing to entertain allowing the community to plan for more palatable, small jet aircraft that require less modificaiton of existing safety buffers.
The bottom line, Baird said, is that no one wants 737s.
"They are twice the size airplane as regional jets," he said.
He said that if the community completes the planning, the FAA will take a serious look at approving the use.