Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Councilor: Consider airport expansion

Land acquisition proposal exposes rift

Express Staff Writer

    Hailey City Councilwoman Martha Burke broke ranks with the Hailey City Council and mayor last week over the city’s insistence that Friedman Memorial Airport not be expanded “outside the fence” of its current footprint.
    Following opposition from the city of Hailey, the Airport Authority last week backed off of a proposal to acquire a small parcel of land at the airport’s northwestern corner to meet federal safety standards. The change would have allowed more turning room for pilots on a taxiway.
    The Airport Authority is now pursuing an alternative plan to angle the taxiway so the additional land will not be required. However, board Chair and pilot Ron Fairfax said the alternative plan could pose increased safety challenges to pilots.
    In a letter to the council and mayor, Burke said she was responding to board member and Hailey representative Susan McBryant’s answers to a recent survey from airport staff about possible changes to the airport’s configuration. Burke stated that she agreed with McBryant that a new airport was “20 years out,” but wrote that she was not in favor of “stonewalling” the FAA by refusing all proposals to expand.
    The Federal Aviation Authority has been examining ground operations at the airport as part of a $34 million, two-year construction project intended to bring the airport into compliance with congressionally mandated safety standards. The agency has been willing to modify some of those standards in Friedman’s case due to the airport’s limited space.
    Hailey officials have emphasized their support for the authority’s plan to eventually relocate the airport rather than expand it at its current site. However, Burke said she would support acquisition of land that allows increased safety or improved reliability.
    “It seems that the city is using tea party tactics,” wrote Burke, a longtime Airport Authority board member who has often been at odds with Mayor Fritz Haemmerle over airport relocation issues. “For the record, I am willing to look at changes in the footprint of the airport depending on the use of the added land and if it will allow for the continued exclusion of larger aircraft [larger than the CRJ-700 jets that will begin landing in Hailey this week].
    “The question for us today is what does this ultimatum approach get us?” she asked. “Is the assumption that by refusing to allow any discussion of expansion outside the fence, we will force the FAA to relocate our airport rather than allow for the loss of commercial air service? ... We aren’t important enough to them as just a single small airport in central Idaho.”
    If federal funding for the airport stops, the airport would continue as a general aviation airport only.
    “We have a fiduciary responsibility to the FAA to run an airport in perpetuity, based on the fact that the community has used federal funds to acquire property to operate the airport,” said airport Manager Rick Baird.
    Baird said the amount of federal funding is directly related to the amount of commercial air traffic at the airport.
     Now, the FAA provides $1.2 million annually, but that will go up next year, due to an expected 30 percent increase in seats aboard commercial flights, he said.
    Haemmerle said in an interview that he was satisfied with the board’s decision not to pursue the land acquisition, since it was deemed unnecessary by the FAA and the Airport Authority engineers.
    “Some things may be safer than others, but they may not be necessary,” he said. “We are not here building the Taj Mahal. If there are other expansions that are required out of necessity for safety, and where there are no other alternatives possible, we will look at it hard, but it would likely require a modification of the [joint powers agreement between Hailey and Blaine County].”
    Haemmerle said that it was the FAA, and not the city of Hailey, that ended an environmental assessment process of alternative airport relocation sites three years ago.

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