WEST JORDAN — City leaders have enlisted the help of Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, to address safety concerns related to South Valley Regional Airport.
One way to restore West Jordan residents' peace of mind, Chaffetz said, is to close the airport.
"They've had a couple accidents recently, and there's a real safety concern," Chaffetz said Friday in a telephone interview with the Deseret News. "I believe that West Jordan should explore the possibility of asking Salt Lake City to close the airport."
There have been two plane crashes in the past three months at the single-runway airport, including the June 26 accident that killed Quinn Michael Falk, 34, of Cottonwood Heights. Falk was flying the airplane that pulled the Salt Lake Bees' banner when the plane lost power and nosedived.
Last month, the airport briefly was shut down after a small plane's landing gear failed and the plane ended up on its side. Both occupants of the aircraft were uninjured, but fire crews were dispatched to clean up oil leaking from the plane.
"The airport is located in the middle of our city, and there is very little buffer," West Jordan Mayor Melissa Johnson said. "If there were to be an accident at the airport, a collision of some sort, we would have the possibility of debris falling on our residents."
Of particular concern, Johnson said, is the airport's proximity to the West Jordan Soccer Complex.
"The largest soccer complex in the state is located practically adjacent to that airport," she said. "And the flight paths into that airport fly right over those soccer fields that are in use seven days a week."
The West Jordan City Council has made improving safety at the airport one of its priorities for 2010, but taking steps to meet that goal has been difficult. The roughly 900-acre airport is owned and operated by the Salt Lake City Department of Airports, which takes all decision making out of the hands of West Jordan officials.
Johnson and other West Jordan leaders have met with Salt Lake City officials to express their concerns and make their case for having an air traffic control tower built at South Valley Regional, an action Johnson said would greatly improve safety. However, it would require expansion of the West Jordan airport to accommodate the 100,000 operations per year in order to receive federal funding for such a project. The airport currently attracts about 80,000 operations per year, West Jordan city officials said.
Expansion of the airport has its own set of problems. Because of its location in the Salt Lake Valley, with mountain ranges to the east and west, all approaches to South Valley Regional Airport are north-south and line up with Salt Lake City International Airport. As a result, pilots seeking permission to land in West Jordan must get clearance from Salt Lake International.
"Most people would conclude that the status quo (of South Valley Regional Airport) is not sustainable long term," Chaffetz said. "They either need to expand the airport and have it truly grow into something, or let's shut it down and change it into something else. I happen to think that shutting it down might be the best long-term strategy."
South Valley Regional Airport supports business-related flights, law enforcement flying services, recreational flying, flight training, air charters and the transport of mail and newspapers. A Utah National Guard Army Aviation Support facility also is housed on the airfield.
Chaffetz said other Utah airports would welcome the National Guard presence.
"Provo, in particular, has expressed a lot of interest in having an expanding airport," he said.
The Provo Airport, a general-aviation airfield on the west edge of Provo, is positioned next to Utah Lake and thus doesn't have the encroachment issues of South Valley Regional, he said.
Chaffetz also noted the financial incentive to Salt Lake City of closing the West Jordan airport, which operates at a loss.
"It would be a cost savings to the city of Salt Lake in these tight budget times," he said, "and that's an important consideration."
Barbara Gann, spokeswoman for the Salt Lake City Department of Airports, confirmed that South Valley Regional Airport is subsidized by the department, though it does so, she said, because it plays an important role in "relieving the traffic in Salt Lake City International Airport."
"It's beneficial to the local aviation network, and that's why we subsidize it," Gann said.
Because Salt Lake City operates on a four-day work week, the dollar amounts of those annual subsidies weren't available Friday, she said.
Chaffetz said his discussions with aviation officials indicate that other Wasatch Front airports — specifically Provo, Ogden, Tooele and Heber — could act as "relievers" for Salt Lake City International.
There are problems with that plan, too, Gann said. Tooele's airport, which also is owned by Salt Lake City, lacks infrastructure, as does the airport in Heber.
"Someone would have to make significant amounts of financial commitments to build those to do what West Jordan does now," Gann said. "I think that's highly unlikely."
Mayor Johnson has requested that a discussion about the future of South Valley Regional Airport be on the agenda for the City Council's Oct. 13 meeting. The most West Jordan leaders could do, however, is pass a resolution in support of closing the airport and forward it to Salt Lake City.
"It's not something that Salt Lake is necessarily seeking," Chaffetz said, "but I'm hopeful they would be open to the possibility."
Salt Lake City Councilman Carlton Christensen described the West Jordan airport as "a key component of general aviation" in the Salt Lake Valley.
"I just don't see that discussion going very far," Christensen said.
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