FAA Outlines Burley Airport's Shortcomings to Local Officials

Aug. 19--BURLEY -- A Federal Aviation Administration official assigned to the Burley airport project spoke with officials of Cassia and Minidoka counties Monday about the airport's shortcomings.

Concerns about moving the airport also were aired by airport users and landowners at one of two proposed airport sites.

Aaron Higgens, who owns land near the Baseline site, said residents there have spent their life savings building houses "to be away from the noise, the traffic and the people."

Higgens said his property is not for sale and is right in the middle of the proposed airport site.

Only a "very small percentage of people in the area use the airport," and only a few of those favor building a new one, he said.

Steve Engelbrech, the FAA project manager and civil engineer, said the airport fails to meet standards because it lacks sufficient safety areas at the ends of the runways to protect aircraft and pilots and it doesn't have object-free zones beyond the runways that protect other people and property. While the length of the runways is not an FAA standard, in order to meet the other standards, the airport's short runways would have to be reduced further.

"The quick and dirty reality is that to comply with standards, you'd have 2,500-foot-long runways," said Englebrech at the Minidoka County meeting. A runway of that length would only accommodate the smallest planes.

In order to meet the required safety and object-free zones, the runways would have to be extended west past Overland Avenue and the hospital to the south.

Engelbrech said the airport rates "fairly high" in its number of crashes in relation to its number of flights.

Engelbrech told Minidoka commissioners that the National Transportation Safety Board's reports on airplane crashes never list runway length as a cause because it's always the pilot's decision whether to use an airport.

"We are certainly not saying if you met all the standards and had a 5,500-foot runway there would be no accidents. But we can make it safer," he said.

At airports that meet standards, eligible projects receive 90 percent funding from the FAA, Engelbrech said. But by law, the FAA can't provide funds for airports that fail to meet standards. The community would have to decide if that type of airport is adequate, and the city would have to provide the funds to maintain it.

The airport needs a couple of million dollars in asphalt work, Engelbrech said. The airport asphalt has not had any major improvements in more than 20 years.

By 2021, the aprons and taxiways will fail and will need to be completely rebuilt. The remainder of the asphalt will be in poor condition.

"I think the FAA has not done a good job being involved in the process up to this point," said Engelbrech.

"One thing the airport users are concerned about is the community as a whole underestimating the value of the airport," said Jack Hunsaker, president of the Burley Airport Users Association, formed by local pilots. "Anytime we hit a roadblock, the response is just: 'We'll shut the airport down, and that's it.' And we're concerned that people don't really appreciate the economic impact of the airport."

Many people use the airport, and it's not just a playground for spoiled rich kids, he said.

Hunsaker said the group opposes both proposed relocation sites but does not oppose relocation per se.

"Most of the users are fine with the length of the runways," said Hunsaker.

Cassia County Commissioner Bob Kunau asked if the FAA would reclassify all community airports that lack runway buffer zones.

Engelbrech said the FAA is only concerned with airports that are eligible for federal money. Many small "back-country" airstrips do not qualify for funds and do not have to meet those requirements.

The FAA will not close the airport, he said. It will simply stop providing money for improvements or maintenance, which would place that burden entirely on the shoulders of Burley taxpayers.

Copyright 2014 - The Times-News, Twin Falls, Idaho

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