March 19, 2012
by Lee Hughes, Mammoth Airport Commissioner
People sometimes wonder why flights don’t divert to Bishop Airport if they are unable to land at Mammoth Yosemite Airport (MMH) due to weather. A gentleman that I rode up with on the chairlift one blustery day said he would probably have to drive to Bishop later and collect his daughter because the plane might not make it into Mammoth. He was right about the flight, it didn’t land in Mammoth, but his daughter didn’t end up in Bishop.
Bishop Eastern Sierra Regional Airport (BIH) is not designated as a suitable alternate airport by the airlines (let’s call it alternate with a Big “A”). This designation for the airport is not controlled by the Town but by the air carrier and the FAA. To a pilot, any airport is a potential alternate if your aircraft is on fire (alternate with a little “a”). However, during normal operations, it is not legal for a commercial flight to list a non-compliant airport as its alternate on the flightplan.
Besides this legal issue, there would be a number of logistical problems if a commercial flight landed at BIH. There are no passenger facilities, customer service agents, bag handling equipment or personnel, ground power carts, tow-bars, or TSA personnel and screening equipment to name a few. Not to mention that lining up several 50 passenger buses on short notice might be difficult. Could it be done? Sure….but only if you throw tens of thousands of dollars at it. The FAA would have to approve the airport as an alternate and BIH would need a Crash/Fire/Rescue unit standing by anytime a flight might arrive. There’s an old aviation adage: ‘All it takes to fly is airspeed and money’.
A lot of energy, time, and money have been invested in order to bring commercial air service into MMH. There is still a considerable amount of work to do to improve MMH and grow the service. At some point in the future it might make sense to have BIH available as an alternate airport. Significant upgrades to the airport would be required. For BIH to become a primary air service airport would be even more complex and expensive. The Town of Bishop and its residents would need to support such a project.
For now, if MMH weather is a problem, it is far more practical and cost effective for the airline to hold a flight on the ground or cancel it before it leaves the gate. If it’s already airborne then the aircraft might enter a holding pattern for a short time if the weather is forecast to improve (fuel permitting). Ultimately the flight may continue to its next destination or return to the airport it departed from. Obviously passengers can be accommodated more easily at a major station. In addition, the airline’s aircraft routers are often concerned with having the aircraft and crew stuck out of position. Yes, it’s sometimes inconvenient….welcome to aviation. It still beats the horse and buggy days most of the time.
Mammoth Lakes, CA