Mammoth Yosemite Airport
March 1, 2012
The residents of Mammoth Lakes and surrounding communities deserve to know the process that is being followed to upgrade Mammoth Yosemite Airport without the editorializing and personal attacks. In the OP/ED piece by Stephen Kalish (MAMMOTH YOSEMITE AIRPORT: A TRAGEDY IN MORE THAN ONE ACT, The Sheet Vol. 10 No. 7 February 18, 2012), Mr. Kalish would like us to believe that the airport is a “fiefdom” and there is some sort of collusion taking place between airport staff, a “sole-source consulting airport engineer” and Terry Ballas. I’m not sure what Mr. Kalish thinks the agenda of this “trio” (as he refers to them) actually is. Perhaps it is Mr. Kalish who has some sort of agenda. In any case, there is certainly enough historical controversy surrounding our little airport. But for those who think this airport is beneficial to our community and would like it to succeed, dredging up the past is counter-productive. As Mr. Kalish points out, there are many decisions to be made as our community strives to improve the Mammoth Yosemite Airport. However, I absolutely do not share his view that there is an impasse with the FAA. Many decisions have already been made or will be finalized after the FAA reviews the Airport Layout Plan (ALP). But let’s look at what has been accomplished at the airport so far.
COMMERCIAL AIR SERVICE IS BORN
About four years ago, Mammoth Yosemite Airport was a marginally equipped General Aviation airport with no commercial air service. It is now a fully certified FAR Part 139 commercial airport with up to seven flights per day. The runway was resurfaced, communications capability upgraded, weather observation equipment installed, Crash/Fire/Rescue equipment purchased and personnel trained. It has a very nice (and admittedly cozy) terminal that was not long ago a garage that housed equipment and snow plows. It has a Sprung structure to provide shelter and food service for passengers waiting for their flights. It has car rental facilities, taxi service, hotel transportation and other visitor friendly services like many other resort airports throughout the country. This was all accomplished by an extremely hard working airport and town staff despite a multitude of technical obstacles and legal challenges that needed to be overcome. All of this was done on a shoestring budget which was funded in great part by the FAA. This initial air service has been amazingly successful especially for a start-up. It has done very well both operationally and regarding load factors. In fact, Mammoth Yosemite exceeded a critical milestone of 10,000 enplanements per year in 2010 and now receives an annual grant from the FAA of one million dollars to help fund the airport. The airport reached 26,000 enplanements in 2011. The real trick going forward will be to maintain the momentum required to sustain the airport and grow the air service. This has been made even more challenging by a recession and a marginal snow year.
THE NEXT STEP
To improve the airport operationally and upgrade the passenger facilities, the FAA requires the Town of Mammoth Lakes to submit an Airport Layout Plan and an Aviation Forecast before it can make recommendations and ultimately approve funding. The ALP is a stand-alone document and does not normally refer to or expand upon previous plans (whether they were approved or not). The ALP Update Narrative (ALPUN) is a further explanation of the changes being sought in the ALP. An unusually detailed ALPUN was prepared by the Town’s airport design consultant, Reinard Brandley, and is currently in draft form. After some editing it will be submitted to the FAA along with the ALP. These documents are essentially the blueprint for what our airport should look like in the future and will include a list of areas that need to be addressed at some point for the airport to meet current FAA design standards. The ALP takes into account the desire (by both the Town and the FAA) to upgrade the category of the airport from B-III to C-III. These technical criteria correspond to the size and approach speed of the aircraft that currently operate into the airport or might do so in the future. For example, the Q400 that Alaska Airlines currently operates into Mammoth Yosemite Airport is a Category C-III aircraft. Most Regional Jets that would be expected to operate into Mammoth Yosemite Airport in the future will also be C-III. It is ultimately up to the FAA (and not Mr. Kalish or even town staff) to decide which deficiencies at our airport will need to be addressed immediately and which will be addressed at a later date. These include many small items and some larger ones, like moving the taxiways and hangars for example. It should be noted that many airports have “Modifications to Standards” that allow a category of aircraft to operate into an airport even if that airport does not meet all of the criteria for that category of aircraft. There may be some restrictions but these are usually taken into account by the airline that is approved to operate at that airport. The bottom line is that the FAA allows airlines such as Alaska to currently operate their Category C-III Q400 into our currently B-III airport. But the ultimate objective is to make the airport C-III compliant by a combination of improvements and “Modifications to Standards”. Further improvements will be made (and largely funded by the FAA) in the future that will eventually mitigate most of the deficiencies as the FAA deems them to be a priority. It is not unusual for “Modifications to Standards” to be in effect for years or even decades until the FAA funds the necessary improvements. Burbank Airport is a perfect example. It has not been fully compliant since it was built yet mainline aircraft such as the Airbus and B737 frequent the airfield. In fact by comparison, Mammoth Yosemite Airport has far fewer and less significant Runway Safety Area (RSA) violations than does the Burbank Airport. Currently the FAA has made elimination of these RSA violations a top funding priority at all airports.
BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME
Mr. Kalish and one or two other vocal opponents of the airport have suggested that the Town should have prepared an ALP that fully funds the “Field of Dreams”. After this perfect airport was built then presumably the next task would be to find an airline to provide air service. If funds were unlimited, this theory might possibly have some merit, as long as the Town and the FAA were willing to take the significant financial risk that air service could be procured and sustained. In the real world, it is extremely unlikely that the FAA would consider funding the airport to any substantial level unless commercial air service was already in existence. I will state an obvious fact here; the Town of Mammoth Lakes could not support air service based on size and demographics alone. Like it or not, it is through the partnership with MMSA and the community (and hopefully someday the Eastern Sierra Air Alliance) that we even have air service at all. Subsidies are common at resorts such as Mammoth and are frankly the only way to ever attract air service to a town this size, at least until the airport can sustain itself financially. On the other hand, if you happen to be anti-airport, then asking the FAA to fund perhaps upwards of 100 million dollars all at once would be a very good way to kill the project altogether. Chapter 5 of the draft ALPUN is devoted to examining theoretical alternatives to using the existing airport configuration as a baseline. It entertains options like moving the 395 so the runway could be relocated, shaving off the top of Doe Ridge and even building an entirely new airport in Long Valley. All these scenarios were found unacceptable on either financial grounds or because of environmental issues. That is not to say the FAA won’t take some components of these alternatives and make them a future requirement (such as moving the taxiways and hangars). At the advice of their consultants, the Town has elected to present a more moderate plan and defer to the FAA who will ultimately decide on the priorities and then supply most of the funding. At that point the ALP may need to be modified to include whatever additional issues the FAA wants addressed. This is the way the process works despite what some folks in town want you to believe.
CONSULTANTS CHECKING CONSULTANTS
The town of Mammoth Lakes went to the extraordinary measure of having a very well known and respected airport design consultant check the work of our well known and respected primary design consultant. The price for this peer review was $20,000 at a time when funding is a real issue in this town. Of course that price tag does not include the hundreds of hours of staff time required to request competitive bids, analyze the data and present the results. Mr. Kalish states in his OP/ED that this “…may have been more of a public relations initiative than serious outreach for advice”. Ironically, the Town commissioned Mead and Hunt to do the peer review as a direct result of Stephen Kalish and Owen Maloy’s hundreds of comments and challenges to the validity of the ALPUN prepared by Reinard Brandley. The consultant from Mead and Hunt stated he had never seen public comment in such quantity or detail on any other airport project he has worked on. I’ll concede that some minor errors and omissions were identified and they will be included in the final version of the ALPUN. But the vast majority of the comments are either based on mis-interpretation, are flat out wrong or are perhaps just “red herrings”. At the end of the day, Mead and Hunt concluded that “The [ALP] Narrative Report is fully in conformance with aviation industry and FAA standards”. They also recommend submitting the ALP to the FAA as soon as it is reviewed by staff, the Airport Commission, and is approved by the Town Council.
HINDSIGHT IS ALWAYS 20-20
Despite the conspiracy theories and accusations of incompetence, the airport is now a viable benefit to our community. This has been brought into reality by the partnership of the Town, Mono County, and MMSA. It is also a direct result of a lot of planning and hard work by staff and others. There will always be a few armchair quarterbacks who will point out mis-steps and disagree with past decisions. And there have been a few decisions that should have been made differently. Hindsight is always 20-20. Rather than dwell on the past, why not look to the future and imagine what we want our airport to be. The current path the Town of Mammoth Lakes and its “fiefdom” airport have chosen is to let the consultants do their job, have the town staff and Council members review their recommendations and to let the FAA ultimately decide on what they will approve and fund. Despite Mr. Kalish’s pessimism, the FAA has so far responded favorably to the draft ALPUN and is on record as stating they “…will work with [the Town] to try and find a way, if possible, to manage the impact of these issues”.
AND THERE WILL BE ISSUES
Most of us know there will be significant hurdles such as land use, environmental studies, and the ever-present dark cloud of the injunction hanging over the airport. How do we handle taxiway to runway separations and where do the hangars go? The ALP is one step towards addressing these issues as long as it takes into account anticipated requirements, which it does. For example, the new terminal building will not impede modification of the taxiways at some point in the future. Some issues, such as commercial development agreements, will have to be considered carefully so they do not interfere with FAA funding. The decisions might be difficult but the choices are straight forward. The community can give up now and let this airport languish, it can solicit the FAA and the Town for millions of taxpayer dollars that will never be approved, or we can all work through the hurdles one at a time to make this airport a vital link for our community.
Mammoth Lakes, CA