Letter to Editor: Airport Commissioner responds to critics

airportMammoth 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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”.


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.

Lee Hughes
Airport Commissioner
Mammoth Lakes, CA

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30 Responses to Letter to Editor: Airport Commissioner responds to critics

  1. Awesome article.

  2. Trouble March 5, 2012 at 11:12 pm #

    Bishop politicians can’t even finish their side walk projects. Don’t bet the house on them.

  3. native March 5, 2012 at 12:54 pm #

    Actually Benett there are 3 different owners around the Mammoth Airport. BLM, LADWP and the Inyo National Forest. I’m not sure I would want to try to negotiate with any of them for more land in that area.

    • who's counting? March 5, 2012 at 5:36 pm #

      Actually, there are 4 property owners adjacent to the Mammoth Airport to deal with: the fourth is Caltrans, which owns a right of way too close to the runway and doesn’t want to give it up.

  4. notsohappy March 5, 2012 at 9:37 am #

    I really dont think Inyo and Mono county could work together on the airport. Isnt the Bishop airport located near or on DWP land. DWP would want something for expansion! Aslo it seems to me the Bishop doesnt want any type of growth. We should just try and be the greatest “Small” airport and the greatest “small” ski resort.

    • Benett Kessler March 5, 2012 at 12:00 pm #

      I will note that, yes, Bishop Airport is on an LADWP lease, but LADWP also owns land around Mammoth Airport and would likely have to be dealt with.
      Also, Inyo has wrangled and wrangled to get a long term lease on Bishop Airport so improvements can be made through grants. They finally succeeded in that after a long line of LA officials used the airport as black mail to get more water. Benett Kessler

      • Ken Warner March 5, 2012 at 12:24 pm #

        If Inyo County (and Bishiop) put the effort into getting that long term lease on the LADWP land that the airport is on, doesn’t that signify an interest in improving the airport?

    • Big AL March 5, 2012 at 11:38 pm #

      You’re right notsohappy, about Inyo and Mono not being able to work together, because they both want the bigger piece of pie, and have a history of not working together so good on issues. The airport was a good example.
      But as far as Mammoth just being the best small town ski resort, that is cool. As for the airport being the best small town airport, I don’t think so.
      It wasn’t the best choice for a regional airport, it is less safer than Bishop, and is less able to expand and is not in the hub of the region in which it serves as a whole.
      Mono county and Mammoth Lakes and Yosemite are not the sole service for a regional airport.
      A true regional airport would service both counties within the region.
      It is a fact, that the runway at Bishop is longer and can accommodate the type of aircraft suited for an airport of this nature. It is a fact that, the Bishop area would provide better service with more days of non interrupted service than mammoth provide, due to weather forced closures and and delays and re routed flights.
      Mammoth could share in the shuttle service that would be needed, that would create jobs.
      All of that said, I feel it doesn’t matter too much, because unless the powers to be come to their right minds and make the correct decision and move the airport to the correct location, it will remain in Mammoth, and God forbid, there isn’t any catastrophic crash to get their attention.

  5. Ken Warner March 3, 2012 at 9:43 pm #

    For the sake of transparency, here’s the definition of “FAR Part 139 commercial airport”.


    CFR Part 139 requires FAA to issue airport operating certificates to airports that—

    * Serve scheduled and unscheduled air carrier aircraft with more than 30 seats;
    * Server scheduled air carrier operations in aircraft with more than 9 seats but less than 31 seats; and
    * The FAA Administrator requires to have a certificate.


    And the best summary of the state of the Mammoth Yosemite Airport I’ve seen is this:


    The Town spent several hundred dollars for every local man, woman, and child on the expansion boondoggle, not including annual losses from 1995 to 1998…..

    The Mammoth-Yosemite Airport will be limited to regional air service for the foreseeable future. The expansion project is still under federal injunction, along with the now-expired federal grant that would not have adequately funded the improvements necessary to bring in large aircraft, because correcting the layout deficiencies requires a completely new expansion plan. . The regional air service needs to be extremely successful before the FAA is likely to consider another expansion project, especially in poor economic times.

    The far superior Eastern Sierra Regional Airport in Bishop has FAA grants for the minor upgrades necessary for commercial certification. Once the Bishop airport is up and running with its three existing runways and facilities, lower altitude, and lack of obstructions, the Mammoth airport will have a tough time competing.


    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”.

    Question: What if the FAA and the Town cannot find a way to manage the impact of these issues? Do we get our money back?

  6. Tourbillon March 3, 2012 at 11:44 am #

    Very informative Mr. Hughes. Factual explanation and procedural transparency are the best disinfectants for opinions, unencumbered by affection for empirical evidence, of neo-Luddites whose obstreperousness typically exceeds their numbers and often exceeds their wit.

    The majority of visitors, our economic lifeblood, come to the Eastern Sierra for Mammoth and Yosemite, and that is why Mammoth-Yosemite airport ultimately is so valuable. While some might prefer that we all regress to horses and buggies, air travel is one of the wonderful marvels of modern life and most people expect contemporary resorts to ensure it is available. I suspect that from time to time you might feel your job is thankless, so: thanks much for your work on our behalf.

    • Ken Warner March 3, 2012 at 12:33 pm #

      Verbosely said, and I hear that Boeing is developing a special edition of the 747 that can land vertically and carry Winnebago’s and motorcycle and snowmobile trailers along with the SUV’s and OHV’s that pull them. That’s going to be a real boon to Mammoth in the near future. Just imagine that….

      • Tourbillon March 3, 2012 at 9:44 pm #

        Did not consider that your head might explode from Big Words. Suggest purchasing a dictionary. And aspirin.

        Not sure what idea the Winnebago comment was meant to make but the wit utterly failed. Can only assume you find reruns of Happy Days to be hilarious. Go Fonz!

        • Ken Warner March 4, 2012 at 11:14 am #

          You’re right, it was weak. And you should be proud of that phrasiology. Almost as pretentious as A. Conan Doyle

          Most people who come to Mammoth and Yosemite bring some kind of gear that is not readily transportable by plane. MMH would have to service the kind of fanciful plane I described to make air travel to this area practical for most visitors to this area. For example all the campers that fill the campgrounds in the Summer — or bicycles — or motorcycles — or snowmobiles — or boats — or ….

          Let’s talk about hikes that last a few days — should a person fly up here, rent a car load his camping gear in it that no doubt cost extra as baggage and park it at a trailhead for the duration? There’s so many instances where air-travel for visitors to this area fails to be practical that surely even you could think of examples.

          Since an airplane like I suggested is not going to happen and people who come to the area don’t (for the most part) just drive around in rental cars, the airport is going to serve only a small portion of the visitor demographic. And so far, according to statistics I’ve seen, people who fly in have been over 50% second home owners who’s “benefit to the community” is not the same as other classes of visitors and not very many of those. Not enough to keep some of the routes serviced this year on the schedule.

          If the airport vanished off the Earth at this moment, the only people who would notice are the people who work there and a few unfortunate pilots who had planned on landing there. And yet, we (TOML) are already into it for over $50 million and counting. Does that make sense to you or anybody? How many people are going to have to fly into mammoth to repay that? What could we buy for the town with $50 million? And the projected expansions and upgrades that the Airport Commision have planned add even more ten’s of millions —


          My thoughts about air-travel to the region are not so much about how to bring visitors in but how to provide access to the greater World for residents of the East Side. Air-travel is a valuable convenience. Without it we on the East Side live in a kind of gravity well that takes a lot of work to climb out of.

          I think that the primary goal for local air service should be to provide easy inexpensive reliable year around access for East Side residents to hubs like Reno, L. A. and SFO. That’s what the people of the East Side need more than providing a convenience that is used to sell condos and second homes. And that’s what MMH is now — just a point of sale convenience for condos and second homes. And what do we get for funding that?

          Hughes said that Mammoth can’t support MMH given our demographics but maybe the whole East Side might be a demographic large enough to support hub access through Bishop’s airport. I think hub access through Bishop should be a joint effort that TOML takes part in. And I hope the people who can make such things happen reconsider and take a broader view of air service to the East Side.

    • Big AL March 3, 2012 at 10:12 pm #

      Your argument doesn’t make sense Tourbillion, it only seems to defend the big money that placed the airport in an unsafe location, that tried to attract more money to Mammoth.

  7. MJA March 3, 2012 at 9:49 am #

    The best way to upgrade the travel access to and from Mammoth I think would be to get rid of the highway patrol hiding in ambush behind every rock and tree.


    • Tim March 3, 2012 at 4:24 pm #

      Weird….I’ve never been pulled over by the highway patrol. Must because I don’t drive too fast….hmmmm…nah, obeying the traffic laws and driving safely couldn’t possibly be it.

    • Wayne Deja March 3, 2012 at 6:40 pm #

      MJA…What are you trying to say?….Should Law Enforcement ignore the safety of others and allow Sou Cal visitors to Mammoth Lakes free rein to speed on HWY.395 in order to get to the slopes…and the taverns… in a quick and orderly fashion?When I travel on my job up and down 395,if I got a cell phone with me,when I see someone driving in an unsafe manner…or speeding over 80MPH, my call to CHP might sometimes be the reason you see these people getting pulled over and cited.There is more to this area than Sou Cal’ers getting to and from Mammoth Lakes…

      • Benett Kessler March 4, 2012 at 9:59 am #

        Wayne, I hope you’re not using your cell phone while driving. Unless you have a hands free.

        • Wayne Deja March 4, 2012 at 10:38 am #

          Benett…..Never in my life have I talked on a cell-phone while driving.

          • Benett Kessler March 4, 2012 at 12:00 pm #

            Good to hear. Just checking. BK

          • Trouble March 4, 2012 at 6:08 pm #

            With all the talking you do Wayne I find that hard to believe 🙂

          • MJA March 5, 2012 at 10:58 am #

            Some people have no One to call.
            And I like to drive fast sometimes,
            Don’t you?


    • Trouble March 4, 2012 at 6:10 pm #

      Totally agree with MJA. Free beer wouldn’t bother me either!

    • justwondering March 5, 2012 at 7:44 pm #

      right on! I finally got my buds from the bay area to come ski mammoth…a group of 4 drove over together…On their way home, they got a ticket…they thought they were still in a 65 zone but it had changed to 55 so they got nailed. We’re talking middle age married guys in a big truck…not speed demons or drunk or anything like that. They won’t come back here. They liked the mountain, but why drive 3 more hours past tahoe and take the risk of a ticket! We have by far, the most CHP per capita then ANY WHERE ELSE in California…not kidding. On my commute each day, I literally see 3 -4 CHP pulling people over. In the Bay Area, you can drive two hours one way and then back and not see ONE SINGLE CHP. And I hate to tell you, its not about SAFETY. Its about REVENUE ENHANCEMENT! If you are paying attention, you could drive hwy 395 at 85 and never have to hit your brakes (other then in towns obviously), that’s what it’s designed for. Speed doesn’t cause accidents, inattention does.

  8. Ken Warner March 2, 2012 at 10:20 pm #

    “Rather than dwell on the past, why not look to the future and imagine what we want our airport to be.”

    Is this guy Harrold Hill in the Music Man? This is the kind of thing con men and other shysters tell you when they are trying to make you forget the screwing they just gave you so they can give you yet another even better screwing.

    He tells you in his own words: “I will state an obvious fact here; the Town of Mammoth Lakes could not support air service based on size and demographics alone. ”

    In other words, get ready to pour money down a bottomless pit until all the players have filled their wallets and fled the scene of the crime.

    Look, there’s a really good airport in Bishop that’s safer because it’s at a lower altitude and has better weather and has a longer runway and more space for terminals and car rentals and if Mono and Inyo Counties worked together they could — with the FAA’s help — create a regional airport for freight and passengers that would serve the whole East side from Bridgport to Lone Pine.

    I would like to see MMSA stop trying to force the development of the Mammoth Yosemite Airport so they can wear it like a cod piece to trade shows and put some effort into a more rational, thoughtful, selfless plan that focuses on the Bishop airport. But first there’s going to have to be a house cleaning to get rid of the people who have brought the town to bankruptcy with empty promises of prosperity for all if we just spend a little more money on their own pet projects.

    The airport has already cost more than $42 million dollars with nothing to show for it but half empty planes and inflated “enplanements” figures. Imagine what $42 million dollars could have put in the town — an Olympic size swimming facility — a year round fully enclosed ice rink that people would like to use — think of what $42 million could have bought us.

    • Rock of Ages March 3, 2012 at 8:47 pm #

      You’re all over it, Ken! Talk to me! And don’t forget to mention how Rusty started this process way back with the Village, ESTA and Mammoth Tourism. You see, because Rusty couldn’t qualify for Federal dollars as a private sector INVESTOR to develop these entities, he had to chump the Town into believing in his “..vision…” and therefore sacrificing OUR future at the risk and ultimate demise of PUBLIC resources. Much easier to pay the bills that way…now let’s examine his approach to solving a financial miscalculation…FIRE all the people who have supported his success over the DECADES, with the thought that they can be replaced with much newer, less expensive employees, that haven’t accumulated all those COLA’S or any other revenue enhancing bones that he has/Dave might have thrown them over the last,…say… 40 YEARS! The local workforce is and has been exploited…. Rusty sets the wage scale, the hours worked without overtime, the benefit levels available, everything you fight for as an employee in this area. It’s SOOOOOO wrong! And I’m not even a union guy! But with small labor pools and small communities, big business and big Government had better get a clue and start getting small and personal again.

      • Rock of Ages March 3, 2012 at 9:04 pm #

        Or I guess you could send reps off to foreign countries to hire folks, posing to be some kind of “enhance our international base” plan, when all you really have in mind is more and deeper employee exploitation….INCREDIBLE!

    • Big AL March 3, 2012 at 10:08 pm #

      I think your right about the choice for a regional airport being better located in Bishop. I knew Mammoth would win out in the placing of the regional airport. Money talks and BS walks. We see how the BS has walked though, with regard to MMLA’s lawsuit and all, connected to Mammoth airport.

      It sure is funny, how they chose that location, knowing, it is the lesser of the two choices. The location which is less safer, less accessible than the other.

      Bishop was far more suited for a regional airport in a number of ways as you stated Ken.

      The very first consideration should have been safety, but safety is number one until it costs money. A number of flights have been cancelled and delayed because of weather. I know first hand that this is true, my wife was on a flight from the bay area, her flight could not land, it circled for 20 minutes before it had to fly to LAX where they waited to see if a flight could land in Mammoth. Luckily the weather did lift, so they could come up from LA to land at Mammoth.

      A regional airport in Bishop is the more logical choice, maybe they can abandon their efforts at Mammoth airport and build something at Bishop, that would work so much better.

  9. Stinks March 2, 2012 at 8:04 pm #

    Thanks Mr. Hughes, just make sure that the fax machine is on and that the Airport Manager keeps those pictures locked up in case he needs them again. Other than that…carry on!


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