Beginning this winter, the number of flight diversions at Friedman Memorial Airport should be considerably reduced due to the Federal Aviation Administration’s approval of a new instrument approach procedure for the E175 regional jets used by Delta and United airlines.
The new predetermined maneuvers will allow pilots to make precise landings in low-visibility conditions, airport Manager Chris Pomeroy reported last week.
“We’re excited for what this holds,” he said. “I think we all agree that this is likely to be one of the biggest game-changing improvements in the history of air service at our airport,” he said.
Approved by the FAA on Aug. 27, the revised instrument approach procedure is the culmination of a two-year partnership with SkyWest Airlines and Colorado-based Flight Tech Engineering, a flight operations company that specializes in flight procedures for high-terrain airports. Similar to road maps, instrument approach procedures provide vertical navigation guidance from the sky to the runway.
In 2016, Alaska Airlines adopted a new private approach procedure that allowed its regional Bombardier Q400 turboprop planes to land in periods of low clouds and visibility.
But currently SkyWest—which operates United and Delta flights at Friedman—requires its E175 jets to divert if cloud cover at an airport is below 1,600 feet. (If cloud cover is at 1,500 feet at Friedman, for example, pilots must head to Twin Falls or Salt Lake City.) Starting this winter, the airport’s new approach procedure will reduce the minimum clearance above the runway from 1,600 feet to under 400 feet.
“[Diversions] have been an issue for quite a while. It will be truly exciting when aircrafts fly with this new procedure, and I’m looking forward to pilot feedback this winter season,” said Alec Seybold, airport and airspace analyst at Flight Tech Engineering, during Tuesday’s airport board meeting.
Airport board treasurer Ron Fairfax, a private pilot, said the airport’s current instrument approach capabilities for incoming E175 jets are to blame for frequent flight cancellations and winter diversions.
“It’s been at least 20 years that we’ve been trying to get a decent approach to this airport,” Fairfax said.
According to unofficial flight interruption data from the airport, between December 2019 and February 2020, Delta Air Lines had 58 flight diversions and United had 46. Only three Alaska Airlines flights were diverted during that same time period.
More recently, two United flights were diverted in August due to wildfire smoke in the Wood River Valley.
Pomeroy said that in order for the airport’s new instrument approach system to gain FAA approval, SkyWest pilots had to test its compatibility in full-motion E175 simulators and in person last year.
“A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into this,” he said. “Now we’re in full preparation mode.”
According to a summary report from Flight Tech Engineering, the new approach allows for more curving inbound flight paths while avoiding high-terrain points such as Lookout Mountain. Pomeroy previously told the Express that pilots’ new ability to descend under low cloud cover this winter will not result in aircraft flying lower over Bellevue while on instrument approach.