Tuesday, October 20, 2020

C1 My Turn: There's more to airport story

by FRANK O'CONNELL/Guest opinion
| October 17, 2020 1:00 AM

Should Kootenai County taxpayers be concerned about the possibility of higher taxes to fund unnecessary future airport modifications and expansion? Many of us at the Cd'A airport (KCOE) certainly are.

After reading last Friday’s article (Airport, Critics Far Apart on Policies), we “critics” agreed that more was unsaid than said in the story. Though it gave voice to our AD (airport director) and his defense of current policy and plans (the FAA is in full control, taxpayers not so much), in no way did it come close to fully explaining the extent of the issues facing KCOE.

First, who are the critics? We comprise a wide spectrum of general aviation (GA); small aircraft owners and pilots, as well as commercial operators, current and retired airline pilots and airport business owners with a broad range of age and experience. This community has become increasingly concerned about the direction KCOE has taken since this AD was hired in 2017; sporadic/poor communication and an autocratic, undiplomatic management style has become the norm. All decisions are top down, with no apparent need for any other viewpoints; tenants are treated with a mix of disdain and condescension.

Our paramount concerns are with the Airport Master Plan which calls for the decoupling of our most actively used runway. This stems from an FAA diktat (we’re told) that all such co-joined runways should be removed or separated after a 2006 accident whereby a jet departed an incorrect, shorter runway in fog. While tragic, the accident was due to human error and was an outlier. Runway numbers painted on the approaches, compass/GPS instrument readings and highly visible signage marking the runways are free or inexpensive and properly used, guarantee safe operations; tearing out 1,100 feet of perfectly usable runway provides no practical benefit to aircraft or the community and could create safety hazards and increased noise pollution to area residents. In addition, this would leave KCOE without an alternate runway for larger or jet aircraft when the longer runway is not usable due to maintenance or high cross winds. Strangely, decoupling was not the preferred alternative in the master plan; why then was it chosen over lengthening (preferred)?

There are other possible long-range implications. Our current AD left his previous position as the director of the Williston, N.D., airport after growing criticism of his plan to abandon their existing airport to build a brand new one. Originally quoted to cost less than upgrading the current airport, he abruptly terminated his position (after commitment but before construction) to fill the AD position here.

Williston ultimately spent $300 million (original estimate $150 million) for an airport they really didn’t need as the oil boom came to an end and their commercial traffic reverted to pre boom levels. Could our AD have similar plans for KCOE? Given the push to develop the north side of the airport, is passenger service the ultimate goal? By adding 1,200 feet to the longer runway in the plans, we suspect that it is his, if not the BOCC’s intent to attempt to re-introduce passenger air service (with its large aircraft) to KCOE. For the record, this has been tried and failed several times in the past as Spokane International had no intention of losing business to KCOE and have simply priced new competition out of business.

If this is the future of KCOE, do we want such traffic over nearby neighborhoods at all times of the day? If we build this, will any airline even consider using it, given competition from Spokane? Do we know what the final price tag might be? Williston was not built with all FAA “free” money, state and local governments chipped in. Could we find ourselves with increased taxes to support a facility we never needed?

We “critics” know KCOE is one of the premier small airports in this region and believe that we should be working toward our strengths (continued, cost effective development for GA utilization), not a known weakness (reinstituting passenger air service). As Coeur d'Alene continues to grow, the GA community is growing with it and bringing more financial opportunities that can be exploited, for Cd'A’s benefit, with only the proper leadership and planning. Whatever your interest, full disclosure and a more in-depth examination of all these issues should happen before any construction begins.

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Frank O'Connell is a 31-year private pilot, aircraft and hangar owner in Cd'A who's passionate about all things aviation and KCOE.