U.S. local and federal governments respond to an urgent safety situation

We flew to Boise and drove to Sun Valley, Idaho earlier this month because the standard instrument approach into the nearby Hailey, Idaho airport (KSUN) requires better-than-vfr 1800′ ceilings. There is an RNP approach for jets equipped with the most sophisticated equipment and whose operators have obtained specific authorization, but even that requires 1000′ ceilings rather than the standard 200′ ceilings for a regular approach. On the afternoon of our arrival the clouds were generally 800′ or 900′ above the runway and therefore in theory the scheduled airlines wouldn’t be able to land. An attempt to land that is aborted into a “missed approach” requires pilots to thread the plane through the mountains on a GPS-guided path, which is a higher workload than “add power and climb out straight ahead”. If an engine quits during part of this process a yet higher level of pilot technique is required to avoid contact with mountains.

As we drove through a wide flat valley of alfalfa farms we wondered “Why didn’t they just put the airport here, an extra 15 minutes away from the ski resort? It would be an idiot-proof standard procedure for a tired regional jet crew to follow. Why subject passengers to the risk of a $19/hour first officer not being his or her sharpest at the end of a 5-day trip?”

[There are practical problems with this airport as well as safety problems. Regional jets must land north and depart south. If the wind is blowing at all, a maximum tailwind limitation will be exceeded for one part of the “turn” and therefore the flight must be diverted to Twin Falls, Idaho and passengers put on a two-hour bus ride. Locals say that they’ve come to expect landing in Twin Falls (“Twin”) rather than in Hailey.]

It turns out that we were not the first to ponder these questions. From a 2009 USA Today article, “Feds say Sun Valley-area airport doesn’t pass ‘hazard test'”:

Officials with the Federal Aviation Administration say the airport in the central Idaho town of Hailey must eventually be closed and replaced because it doesn’t pass the “hazard test.”

Jason Pitts, manager of the 12-state FAA Northwestern region’s flight procedures office, said ridgelines that surround Friedman Memorial Airport mean aircraft that abort landings can’t meet FAA standards of 2,000 feet above the highest terrain as they climb to higher airspace to make another approach.

Pitts said they’ve looked at approaches from every angle, and “sorry, the answer is no” to any technologies that would change the FAA decision. He spoke to the airport’s governing board — the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority — earlier this week.

Officials are considering three sites south of the current airport to build a new one. The FAA plans a preliminary decision in November 2011 on the possible location of a new airport.

We could have picked a vastly safer airport location in about an hour by looking at an aeronautical chart and knocking on some farmers’ doors to ask who would be willing to sell. Yet after seven years passengers continue to be subject to a level of risk that is more like what you’d expect for an air traveler to a remote corner of Nepal.

What has the combination of federal and local government accomplished? Instead of buying out a farmer and laying down a 1.5-mile strip of asphalt, in 2015 the government spent $34 million in tax dollars on improvements to the airport declared fundamentally unsafe in 2009 (source).

If we assume that the typical visitor to Sun Valley is paying 40 percent of his or her income in taxes (federal income, state income, local income (e.g., New York City), property, sales, gas, etc.), why don’t the governments in question demonstrate at least some interest in keeping these people alive?

3 thoughts on “U.S. local and federal governments respond to an urgent safety situation

  1. I know one way to get that airport relocated in a (relative) hurry – have one fully loaded regional jet hit the ridgeline after an aborted landing and they will be building that new airport right quick.

    The airport has been in this location since 1931 – long before Sun Valley was the domain of hedge funders and trust funders. Or at least not flying in – in the early days they came by rail.

  2. Jack: It was a fine airport in 1931 or any other time that flying slow piston-powered airplanes VFR was prevalent. (i.e., it is still a fine airport today if what you want to do is takeoff to the south in a little Cessna under clear skies) If you had given the folks who built the airport the specs for current airplanes they never would have chosen the location that they did.

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