Friedman Memorial Airport has continued to reap benefits from its new instrument approach procedure for E175 regional jets used by Delta and United airlines, airport Manager Chris Pomeroy reported Tuesday.
While the old landing approach required clouds to be at least 1,600 high with a visibility range of over 3 miles, the revised approach requires clouds to be only 343 feet above the runway with 1-mile visibility. The new technology—the culmination of a two-year partnership with SkyWest Airlines and Colorado-based Flight Tech Engineering—has “saved” 38 flights from cancellation or diversion between its debut on Dec. 3 and the end of January, Pomeroy said.
Unofficial flight data from this January show two flight cancellations and 13 diversions, compared with eight cancellations and 47 diversions in January 2020.
The new approach also allows for more curving inbound flight paths while avoiding high-terrain points. Alec Seybold, airport and airspace analyst at Flight Tech Engineering, said during Tuesday’s airport board meeting that Delta and United pilots are using the approach “100 percent of the time” when flying into Hailey, regardless of cloud cover.
“It’s just becoming their preferred approach not only for weather reasons, but because it provides a stabilized flight track,” Seybold said.
However, the system has brought some new challenges, Operations Manager Tim Burke said. Those include more frequent snow removal and greater reliance on weather updates.
“This approach puts an exponential amount of pressure on the team to have the runway ready for use,” he said, explaining how the operations team worked “24 hours a day, four days straight” over the course of last week’s blizzard to make sure that no more than a half-inch of snow accumulated on the runway at any point.
“In our battle against Mother Nature, we were constantly shifting around our resources to get the snow depth down to one-eighth inch of snow for every scheduled arrival,” Burke said.
No planes were turned away due to excess snow on the runway during the three-day snowstorm and any diversions and cancellations were the result of low visibility, he said.
“Our crew has proven that they have what it takes to step up to the plate and get it done. I’m pretty darn proud of them,” Burke said.
Around 9:30 a.m. on Jan. 27, one of the airport’s older snow removal vehicles caught fire, prompting Friedman to close for two hours. The Hailey Fire Department and the airport’s own firefighting trucks responded to the incident, which did not result in any injuries or flight cancellations.
“Although it’s really disappointing to lose a critical piece of snow equipment in the winter, the incident served as a live fire drill and exposed some things that we need to improve on,” Burke said, adding that the plow from the damaged truck was salvaged and transferred to another vehicle.
The fire was caused by an air brake system failure and the airport is looking into plow truck replacement options, he said.
Building on success
Pomeroy said Friedman Memorial Airport and Flight Tech are looking at rolling out the predetermined approach to eligible operators outside Delta and United “due to challenging weather conditions and awareness of the approach.” Though the maneuvers were designed to benefit the flying public, corporate and business jets with airline-grade cockpits could use them “with a lot of training,” Seybold said.
Operators would have to go through a regulatory approval process with the FAA to prove they have the right equipment and training. One benefit to the rollout—which could take up to four months—would be an overall reduction in traffic congestion, especially south of the runway where planes tend to stack up and burn excess fuel, Seybold said.
“[A pilot] told me that they were sitting out there for over an hour the other day and were pretty frustrated seeing SkyWest aircraft zip right in,” he said.
Seybold noted that the runway does not currently have approach and identifier lights, which could be considered if the airport would like to lower its clearance and visibility requirements. Low-hanging fog will continue to cause diversions in the future without the lights, he said.
“We could dramatically reduce [minimum] visibility to a half mile by installation of an approach light system, which would be a 2,400-foot-long light bar turned on during inclement weather to guide aircraft,” Seybold told the board. “Certainly, the decision is up to you, though some improvement could occur.”
Pomeroy said the airport did not have enough data to support the need for a new lighting system, which could have an impact on Hailey’s dark-sky ordinance. The board is not considering adding any visual aids, he said.
“Let’s get some use of this procedure under our belt first and see how it works,” he said. “We’re not anywhere near the point to be discussing a [light approach] … [Seybold] is just pointing out limitations that we have,” he said.