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For the week of July 12 through July 18, 2000

Get ready, jet set…

Horizon turboprops make origin-destination flights pie in the sky

It was like a "big pillow."

Sun Valley Co. general manager Wally Huffman describing a Boeing 737 landing in Hailey

Express Staff Writer

Despite what you may think about traffic and crowds, tourist numbers and revenues are not all they could be in the Wood River Valley, and the resort industry blames poor accessibility.

What the area needs, industry leaders say, is fast, reliable, comfortable, nonstop, origin-destination flights from major cities all over the United States—and that means bringing in regularly scheduled jet service. But airlines claim problems with safety and economics prevent that from happening anytime soon.

To get here now, tourists from major metropolitan areas must, for the most part, first fly into Boise or Salt Lake City, then jump onto small turboprops for the final, bouncy jaunt into Hailey.

Ski magazine last winter rated Sun Valley the best—yet most inaccessible—resort in the nation. Resort planners blame the difficult trek for the resort’s running at only 50 to 70 percent capacity during the winter. Numbers for the summer, they say, are a little higher.

Making the area better connected with the outside world is a Rubik’s Cube of a problem that local retailers, resort planners and air carriers have grappled with for years.

The Ketchum/Sun Valley Chamber of Commerce and Horizon airlines—one of the valley’s two regularly scheduled air carriers, along with Skywest—made little progress with the issue last Thursday during an annual marketing luncheon at the Sun Valley Lodge.

Horizon officials talked of improved turboprop service, while some chamber of commerce members seemed nonplused by the airline’s reluctance to offer jet service.

Imagine a 60-ton Boeing 737, with its some 130 passengers, 22,000 pounds of thrust, 7,000-gallon fuel capacity and 112-foot wingspan, making its final, delicate descent into Hailey’s single-runway Friedman Memorial Airport.

It was like a "big pillow" landing, Sun Valley Co. general manager Wally Huffman told a reporter, remembering when America West offered 737 service regularly to Hailey for awhile in 1991.

Huffman likes jets, no doubt about it. Jets, he said, would allow origin-destination service to replace the existing hub service, effectively eliminating the accessibility issue.

Unfortunately for Huffman, not everyone agrees a 737 landing in Hailey is soft, fluffy and benign. In 1991, residents in the south county, especially Hailey and Bellevue, voiced concerns about safety and noise.

Even Huffman admits bringing the big jets into the airport required making "some exceptions" to Federal Aviation Administration guidelines. Perhaps reacting to the 737s, residents from the south county sought seats and gained a majority on the Airport Commission—the body with the final word on airport planning issues—and soon nixed the big planes.

While [the America West service] lasted, it was a "highly successful venture" for retailers and the resort, Huffman said, though even with a guaranteed financial subsidy from the publicly-funded chamber of commerce, the airline lost money on the deal. Ultimately, it didn’t work, he said, because people in the south county saw it as a "north-south competitive issue," as well as a safety and noise problem.

Still, after nearly a decade, the resort industry wants its jets.

Huffman said the resort’s "No. 1 priority" now is extending the airport and its runway south, so safety won’t be so much of a factor in preventing jet service. If Horizon’s numbers are to be believed—and Huffman said he doesn’t believe them—that could mean adding another 2,400 feet to the current 6,602-foot strip.

With a six-year renovation of the airport nearing completion this year, immediate additional expansion seems unlikely. Also, airport manager Rick Baird said the airport currently does not have enough room for a 2,400-foot runway extension.

Aircraft technology has come a long way in the last half decade. Today, it seems unlikely any air carrier would consider flying a 737, or similar size aircraft, into Hailey. Instead, the resort shows keen interest in new, exceedingly popular regional jets—usually called RJs—which are 50- to 70-seat versions of their big jet counterparts.

RJs fly higher, faster and farther with greater efficiency than turboprops. The minijets are remarkably quiet and, industry experts say, popular with passengers because their smooth flight characteristics make them as comfortable as larger jets. Airlines say the minijets could mean more nonstop service to regional airports traditionally served by turboprops.

All that may sound like good news for the chamber of commerce crowd, but there’s a catch—airlines say they have no intention of flying RJs into Hailey for the indefinite future. Mostly, that’s because the minijets, while flying high and fast once airborne, don’t have adequate "short field" performance to take off from Hailey, Bruce Lecklenbury, Horizon’s director of scheduling, told the luncheon gathering. Altitude, ambient temperature and cargo load, all affect the little jets’ take-off performance, which means in Hailey the planes would need a 9,000-foot runway, he said.

Another problem with jet service, Horizon says, is economics. A turboprop costs $6 million to $15 million, compared to around $20 million for each of the nearly 30 RJs Horizon has on order from Canadian manufacturer Bombardier Aircraft Corp. At that price, Dan Russo, Horizon’s director of marketing communication, told the gathering the airline cannot afford to serve Hailey’s relatively small market with RJs, where planes can sit idle on the ground for long periods of time.

Thursday, Russo announced Horizon will replace its existing 37-seat Dash8 Q200 turboprops with 70-seat Dash8 Q400s. Horizon plans to serve Hailey with the larger new turboprops not only because they are better suited than jets to high-altitude airports surrounded by mountains, but also because they have better "seat costs" than most other planes, including RJs, Russo said. In other words, the new turbos are the most economical plane to fly into the valley.

Russo said the new turboprops allow the airline to double its number of seats without adding another flight.

"The economics of the Q400 offer us the best opportunity to be profitable in Sun Valley," Russo said, "which is a point on a year-round basis that we’ve never reached." And despite all the hype about RJs, Russo said he thinks that "once people get on the [Q400], they’re not going to say ‘never again,’ they’re going to say, ‘this is really nice’—maybe even better than what they had before."

Whatever the case, Russo said Horizon will continue to be a turboprop operator despite fears among the local resort industry that air carriers will dump the old-style planes in favor of RJs, effectively leaving Sun Valley without regularly scheduled air service.

"Some carriers have made statements about going all jet," Horizon vice president of marketing and planning Pat Zachwieja said in an interview last month with the Mountain Express. "But that’s certainly not true for Horizon." Russo said, however, that the new Q400s could mean fewer flights per day between Boise and Hailey, since the larger planes can carry more passengers per trip.

If Horizon is reluctant to make any major changes in the way it serves the Wood River Valley, that could be because the company pulled off somewhat of a coup last winter by providing service between Boise and Hailey without needing a promised $100,000 subsidy from Sun Valley Co. and the Ketchum/Sun Valley Chamber of Commerce. The airline was, in fact, so pleased with the demand for the route that it agreed to add daily Boise-Sun Valley flights for the summer and will likely continue the service through the winter season—this time without a revenue guarantee.

Still, Sun Valley Co. manager Huffman said the resort area does not yet have a tenth of what it needs in terms of air service. He is deeply suspicious of the idea that the Hailey airport runway is too short for RJs.

"Today, we heard 9,000 feet, and I don’t believe it," he said. "I can tell you, if [Horizon] had extra RJs and there was a demand, that 9,000 number would probably drop to about seven."

Where will all this end up? That’s almost impossible to know, it seems. But Huffman said he thinks whatever eventually happens will probably involve "an equal dose of safety and an equal dose of economics."


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