Friday, June 8, 2012

Authority strives for bigger planes

Proposal calls for modifications to accommodate regional jets

Express Staff Writer

Photo courtesy of Federal Aviation Administration. An engineering firm has proposed a plan to modify Friedman Memorial Airport, above, to allow larger commercial aircraft to fly passengers to and from the site in Hailey.

Plans to allow larger planes to use Friedman Memorial Airport took one step closer to fulfillment Tuesday when consulting firm T-O Engineers asked the Airport Authority to approve its plans for a study.

According to T-O Engineers spokesman Dave Mitchell, the study will address problems with reliability and design standards for planes currently using the airport and in the immediate future, and will attempt to avoid expanding the airport's footprint.

"We need to survive and thrive at the existing airport," Mitchell told board members.

Planes are categorized by the Federal Aviation Administration according to two criteria—approach speed, designated by a letter, and wingspan, designated by a Roman numeral. Larger letters and numerals indicate faster and bigger planes.

Friedman is categorized as a B-II airport, though certain C-III category aircraft are allowed to land, such as Horizon Air's Q400 turboprops.

Mitchell said he hopes to find a way to bring Friedman into compliance with C-II design standards, with certain modifications in landing procedures that would allow C-III category aircraft to use the airport as well.

The Airport Authority has stated that an upgrade to a C-II standard would also permit use of regional jets. SkyWest has expressed interest in replacing its turboprop Embraer 120 with CRJ 700 regional jets.

"What I see is a regional jet airport that will accommodate the Q400 and the other aircraft that already fly here," Mitchell said.

The benefits of modifying the airport layout to match C-II rather than C-III standards, Mitchell said, is that the runway safety area—the width of which is strictly regulated by the FAA—is more likely to fit within the current airport's footprint.

"This fits a lot better for the C-II," he said.

Airport Authority Chair Tom Bowman said in an interview that the runway safety area modification is crucial because it's the only requirement that cannot be overridden by operational limitations approved by the FAA.

"The other ones, if you have an equivalent level of safety, you can request a modification," he said.

Bowman added that the board did not plan to aim for full C-III compliance because that would mean accommodating large jets, such as the Boeing 737-700, which has a wingspan of almost twice that of the Embraer 120.

"Our point of view is that we don't want the large end of the C-III [category] coming here," he said. "It's just not appropriate. We're not encouraging that, and we don't want to build an airport that would accommodate that."

Mitchell said during the meeting that T-O Engineers would consider the absolute minimum modifications that would bring the airport into compliance, and would likely focus on low-impact and low-cost projects first.

Though board members agreed to the draft plans for the study, some wanted to go further, contrary to Bowman's statements, and do more than the minimum improvements required.

"I don't want to look back and say, 'We were really short-sighted,'" said board member Ron Fairfax. "We've been trying to meet C-III standards for eight years now. Not meeting those standards [would be] a little short-sighted."

Fairfax added that the board should keep in mind the possibility of having to live with the modifications to this airport for possibly decades.

"After 22 years of trying to move toward a replacement airport, I think we are as far away from a new airport as we ever have been," he said. "We have to look at the possibility of no replacement airport until the population of all of southern Idaho gets big enough that we need a new regional airport. That might be 50 years from now."

Fairfax later clarified that he was not speaking for the entire board.

Mitchell said he will finalize the plans and present the final scope of work to the Airport Authority board before the beginning of next month. Finalization of the study and plans for actual improvements are dependent on FAA review and approval.

Katherine Wutz:

Regional jet plans continue

The Friedman Memorial Airport Authority board on Tuesday hired consulting firm Mead and Hunt to conduct an environmental assessment to allow SkyWest's regional jets to use Friedman Memorial Airport. Brad Rolfe of Mead and Hunt explained during an authority board meeting Tuesday that the FAA requires the study before SkyWest could be approved to fly its CRJ 700. SkyWest announced last year that it hopes to replace its Embraer 120 with the larger CRJ 700. Rolfe said that would also reduce the number of average daily SkyWest flights in and out of Sun Valley from six to three due to the jets' increased passenger capacity. Rolfe said that if all goes well, SkyWest could be approved to fly the CRJ 700 into Friedman Memorial Airport by September. However, SkyWest has not announced a timeline for when it would begin flying those aircraft.

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