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For the week of June 14 through June 20, 2000

The little jet that could

New gee-whiz planes change the face of regional air service


By TRAVIS PURSER
Express Staff Writer

There’s a recent trend in the air carrier industry that has regional airlines like Horizon and SkyWest deploying small, new, efficient jets, while small communities like the Wood River Valley speculate about whether they’ll continue to have air service in the wake of the change.

The planes are called regional jets, and passengers and airlines are in love with them.

The 50-seat versions of bigger planes like the DC-9 or Boeing 737 can do almost everything the tried-and-true turboprop can do, only better.

The minijets fly higher, faster and farther with greater efficiency than turboprops. And in dicey weather, industry experts say they fly as smoothly and comfortably as their big jet counterparts.

What’s more, representatives from Horizon and SkyWest say the little jets’ range and speed could mean a non-stop connection between Hailey and major cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Denver for the first time ever.

And, the regional jets are remarkably quiet.

So what’s the problem?

Some airlines say they hope to replace all their existing turboprops with regional jets. And, both SkyWest and Horizon, the Wood River Valley’s two regularly scheduled air service providers, say they have no intention of flying regional jets into the area. Those two facts combined have caused some to sound the alarm.

"We’re hearing from industry experts that communities need to be ready for the regional jet," Hailey airport manager Rick Baird said during an interview at his office Friday, "or it may not be a matter of whether you have them, but whether you have service at all."

This month marked the arrival at SkyWest of the first regional jets out of more than 50 on order from Canadian manufacturer Bombardier Aircraft Corp.

On June 12, Horizon announced that it, too, had ordered regional jets from Bombardier, 30 in all, with 14 to arrive between December 2000 and October 2001.

Baird has been spearheading a six-year renovation of the airport. With the project scheduled for completion in about a year, he says now that the airport board of trustees should consider updating the renovation plan to make the runway and other infrastructure more suitable for the new jets.

Even though airlines say they don’t plan on flying the jet into the area, Baird remains confident airlines can be enticed to do so.

Baird said that everything from economics to aerodynamics affects whether air carriers will fly regional jets into the valley.

Five years ago, the airport conducted a test flight of a regional jet into Hailey and the plane performed fine, Baird said.

However, because the jets land and take off at faster speeds than the turboprops the two airlines have been using to service the area, Baird said the runway needs to be extended and obstacles such as taxiways, buildings and airplane parking areas need to be moved farther away from the runway.

Also, at $20 million dollars for a regional jet, compared to $6 million to $15 million for a turboprop, airlines can’t afford to allow the jets to sit idle on the ground for long, as they most likely would servicing Hailey, Baird said.

It may seem that the airport and airlines could reach an agreement that guaranteed regional jet service to Hailey on the condition that the airport provide the necessary improvements. But in reality, Baird said most of the communication is between the resort environment and the carriers, rather than between the airport and carriers.

The airport, he said, strives to understand the challenges carriers face and make an educated guess about what infrastructure to provide to encourage topnotch service. And that’s not unusual. "We’re not the only community in the country doing this," he said.

As for Horizon and SkyWest, they discount the impact the new jets will have on the Wood River Valley.

They say they have no plans to fly the jets into the area, while at the same time, they have no plans to discontinue turboprop service.

In fact, Horizon vice president of marketing and planning Patrick Zachwieja said during a telephone interview Monday that his airline has ordered a new fleet of Dash 8 turboprops to replace the current Dash 8s the airline flies into the area. The new Dash 8s, he said, will carry 33 more passengers than the old aircraft, will have more room for luggage and equipment and will fly nearly 100 knots faster.

"Some carriers have made statements about going all jet," Zachwieja said, "but that’s certainly not true for Horizon."

Both Zachwieja and SkyWest vice president of marketing development Steve Hart said that regional jets currently aren’t suitable for high-altitude airports.

During a Monday telephone interview, Hart said the jets may fly faster and higher than turboprops once they’re in the air, but the jets’ swept-wing design means they take longer than turboprops to take off and climb.

Hailey’s surrounding "box canyon," he said, means regional jets can’t service the area with a full load. And, without a full load, jet service can’t be economically viable, he said.

Nevertheless, Hart said SkyWest won’t leave markets like Sun Valley without turboprop service.

Both airlines said they plan to address the airport board this summer to discuss updating the airport renovation master plan and to discuss the future of air carrier service in the Wood River Valley.

 

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Copyright 2000 Express Publishing Inc. All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited.