Feburary 21, 2012

The city of Burley, ID has been trying for decades to replace its airport, which is unable to accommodate operations from some types of business airplanes.

Meanwhile, those aircraft fly past the rapidly growing town to airports with runways longer than Burley’s two 4,000 foot strips. “Many of those business airplanes would rather land here, close to their destination, but they have to fly on by,” said Kevin Gebhart, manager of the city’s Burley J.R. Jack Simplot Airport. “We’re losing out.”

The nearest business airport is in Twin Falls, ID, which Gebhart says is about 45 minutes to an hour away by auto but has an unobstructed 8,700-foot runway.

Exacerbating the conflict between proponents of a new airport and opponents, who make their living from the land that could be used to develop a new airfield, is the success Burley officials have enjoyed in recent years attracting numerous new businesses, relocating businesses from other locales and enjoying local business expansions. City officials including city manager Mark Mitton and Mayor Terry Greenman, who understand the reasoning of the new-airport opposition, remain acutely aware that their city’s air transportation doorway is deficient.

“A new business-capable airport is vital for our continued growth and development,” said Mitton. “Our current airport was dedicated in 1930, and it’s landlocked. The runways are too short.” Airport manager Gebhart added that the Burley airport was dedicated before Douglas DC-3s were on the drawing board.

Both runways at the 4,150-foot elevation airport are barely over 4,000 feet and all four runway ends are displaced by one or more permanent obstructions, including 24-foot utility poles, street lights, railroad cars, a cheese factory and a grain elevator. But lack of available runway is the real problem, said Gebhart, especially during the summer. “The temperature can get above 100 degrees here,” he observed. “With our elevation, that really kicks the density altitude to the point where our marginal runways become completely unusable for some aircraft.”

The city continues to encourage economic diversification and has welcomed industries that include a large food-trucking company, new milk and potato dehydrator plants, an ethanol production facility and a major cheese manufacturing plant. The growth has been so robust that the U.S. Census bureau has designated the area as a Micropolitan Statistical Area, with Burley at the center.

“When businesses from outside call me and ask about relocating here or opening a new branch, their first question is, ‘how do I get there?’” said Mitton. “I tell them we’re about two hours from the Salt Lake City airport or the Boise Airport, which is o.k. if they’re just coming to visit once. But once they’ve built a facility here, they want to be able to fly in to Burley, not Salt Lake City, do their business and go home.”