Life flights underscore airport's value
January 8, 2010
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    News editor

    SANDPOINT – A transplant team utilized Sandpoint Airport for the second time in two weeks to fly out live-saving donor organs.

    A Learjet 35 carrying a transplant team from Seattle touched down at the airport on Monday and was on its way several hours later, deflating the perception that the county-owned facility only serves as a playground for the rich or a utility for the powerful.

    “It services a lot of people even though you might not be aware of it. This is one of the many things that this airport accomplishes,” said Sol Pusey, a former Sandpoint Airport Advisory Board member who has also served as the facility’s manger. “A lot of people in town don’t think we need it.”

    Pusey points out that a premature infant was recently flown out of the airport for treatment. The airport has also been used countless times over the years to fly out medical patients.

    Some of the county’s biggest employers and manufacturers – Litehouse Foods, Coldwater Creek and Quest Aviation – also utilize the airport. A draft economic study conducted in 2007 estimates that the airport has a $33 million impact on the community.

    But a shortage of county funding continues to mute the utilization of the airport, especially in winter, when ice effectively keeps some planes and jets from landing.

    The county has a limited amount of funding allocated for plowing and fuel to keep trucks running. The dearth of funding means the county can’t clear the runway any time snow falls.

    “There’s no money in the budget whatsoever to handle ice removal off the airport, nor is there any equipment to handle ice removal,” adds Jason Hauck of SilverWing Flight Services, which handles fixed-based operations at the airport.

    The most recent winter storm, for instance, coated the airport with about an inch of snow. The weather warmed briefly, but temperatures subsequently plummeted and left about a half-inch of ice on the runway.

    “The next day we had three jets and a turboprop come in, all of which were unhappy – to put it mildly – at the condition of the runway. It was an ice rink,” Hauck said.

    Private pilots have the choice of whether to land at Sandpoint, although many charter and fractional-ownership outfits don’t.

    “Their insurance companies won’t allow them to land when braking action is below a certain level or if there’s ice on the runway,” Hauck said.

    Federal Aviation Administration calls for Sandpoint Airport’s runway to be “wet at worst” during the winter.

    Pusey is hoping the county would be willing to allow the airport to use a broom attachment to help keep the aircraft pathways clear. Hauck said SilverWing’s offer to fabricate and equip a piece of county equipment with an FAA-approved deicing system has hit a dead end.

    Hauck plans to reach out to municipalities in Bonner County which benefit from Sandpoint Airport to see if they can help ease some the funding burden.

    “We’re kind of at a crossroads here,” said Hauck. “It’s something we need to figure out how to get solved.”

    Date: 2009-12-31