Letter to the Editor: Safety at Mammoth Airport


March 14, 2012

The short answer is that of course Mammoth Yosemite Airport is safe. But you may have heard talk that would lead you to believe Mammoth Yosemite Airport (MMH) has so many deficiencies that it is unsafe and the Town is ignoring these deficiencies. Some even say that MMH was chosen for air service strictly due to its convenience and that the Bishop Eastern Sierra Regional Airport (BIH) would have been a better choice. If you are interested to know why MMH is safe then it’s worth looking at the way a commercial airport is certified and how airlines operate.

The FAA certifies airports with scheduled air service using the rules specified under CFR Part 139. Airports are surveyed, checked for obstructions and evaluated for other safety issues. Certain deficiencies have to be resolved prior to certification. Training and security programs are implemented and the airport staff is required to write an operations and safety plan known as an Airport Certification Manual (ACM). After the airport is certified it is regularly inspected by FAA Airport Safety Certification Inspectors. Airport standards have continually evolved since the days when the airlines primarily flew mailbags around. The majority of airports were built before most of these standards were in place so airports are regularly being upgraded to meet them.

An airport might not meet all of the current standards but a commercial air carrier can still operate there and the deviations can be dealt with in a number of ways. Most airports have at least some “Modifications to Standards”. These may only apply for a particular category of aircraft. I’ve mentioned Burbank Bob Hope Airport (BUR) in the past as a prime example. Much of Burbank’s terminal and aircraft gates lie within the Runway Safety Area (RSA) which is a fairly serious violation in the eyes of the FAA. It requires a “Modification to Standards” to certify BUR airport for C-III aircraft operations. (The C-III corresponds to the size and approach speed of a particular aircraft.) Resolving RSA violations is currently an FAA funding priority. MMH has very few and relatively minor RSA violations that will be resolved when the new MMH Airport Layout Plan (ALP) is approved.

The FAA allows Alaska Airlines to operate a Category C-III aircraft into MMH even though the airport is classified Category B-III. The new MMH ALP will propose upgrading the airport to C-III status. One of the deviations to standards at MMH is the runway to taxiway centerline separation does not meet the C-III standard. The standard dictates this spacing should be at least 400 feet and MMH currently has a 300 foot separation (BUR also has a very similar issue). The FAA does not deem this deviation serious enough to prevent Alaska Airlines and United Express from currently operating into MMH.

Even though the taxiway-runway separation doesn’t meet the current C-III standard, the airport design consultant for MMH has stated “…that no portion of the aircraft [that are] forecast to use the airport will penetrate the runway protection zone (RPZ) while operating on the parallel taxiway.” A second consultant agrees with his findings. That said, the FAA could require the Town and the airport to address this deficiency someday which will involve moving the taxiway and some hangars at considerable cost. Fortunately the FAA will also foot most of the bill when and if this is required.

Some deviations to standards cannot be mitigated by simply changing something at the airport. It usually has to do with high terrain or some other obstruction, perhaps on the approach or departure. The FAA and the air carriers handle these airports case by case and might impose special operating rules. The FAA denotes some airports as a “Special Pilot-In-Command Qualification” airport which will be listed in the airline’s OPSPECS. Alternatively, the airport might be noted in the air carrier’s Flight Operations Manual (FOM) as a “Special Airport”. This means there are specific procedures to follow and the flight crew is specially trained and briefed on operating at the airport.

Mammoth Yosemite Airport is designated as a “Special Airport” by both Alaska Airlines and United Express. Airports such as Burbank (BUR), San Diego (SAN) and Jackson Hole (JAC) fall under the FAA “Special PIC Qualification” category. You might be surprised to learn that even San Francisco (SFO) is a “Special PIC Qual” airport due to high terrain off the departure end of runways 28L and 28R.

CFR Part 139 Airport Certification and special air carrier procedures are only two ways of handling the safety considerations for commercial flights. A myriad of other safety procedures and equipment are embedded into the system. Most are invisible to the average passenger. For example, today’s aircraft have weather radar, terrain avoidance equipment, and collision avoidance systems onboard. A big part of air crew training focuses on terrain awareness and wind shear procedures.

Finally, during daily operations, the airline dispatcher and the Captain of the aircraft have joint responsibility to sign off the flight plan before the flight departs. Both must be satisfied that the flight can operate safely and either one has the authority to cancel the flight if there is a concern. Once the aircraft is released for departure, it is the flight crew who is the final authority as to whether a flight will take-off or land at an airport. An airline crew has many resources available to help make that decision in real-time.

Can MMH be a challenging airport to operate into? Sure. So is Chicago O’Hare in a snowstorm. Is MMH unsafe? Absolutely not. That doesn’t mean there aren’t improvements that can be made. That is why the Town, in conjunction with an airfield design consultant and the FAA, are currently reviewing a new ALP. After the plan is officially submitted, the FAA will prioritize and help fund mitigation of the most important issues that affect MMH.

I’m sure you’ve heard this before: You are statistically safer riding in a commercial airliner than driving in an automobile. So next time someone tries to scare you into thinking MMH is substandard or unsafe, remind yourself that the most perilous part of your journey is that drive to or from the airport.

Lee Hughes
Airport Commissioner
Mammoth Lakes, CA


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7 Responses to Letter to the Editor: Safety at Mammoth Airport

  1. upthecreek March 14, 2012 at 5:18 pm #

    “the FAA will prioritize and help FUND mitigation of the most important issues that affect MMH.”

    That is.. until the FAA runs out of printed money.

    The way our government spends money.,.

    That day will be very soon


  2. Friar Tuck March 14, 2012 at 6:19 pm #

    When the current air carrier subsidies are eventually abandoned due to a lack of revenue or customer use, the number of commercial flights will decrease or cease. Regardless of all of the above airport and flight safety information, this airport is still fiscally unsafe for the taxpayers having to pay for the day to day freight!

    • tom March 15, 2012 at 6:09 pm #

      “When the current air carrier subsidies are eventually abandoned due to a lack of revenue or customer use………………. taxpayers having to pay for the day to day freight”

      Where do you guys come up with this stuff, first of all MMSA is paying the bulk of the subsidy out of there marketing dollars in which MMSA and the town are benefiting major returns on even in a drought year. What basis supports your comment about taxpayers footing the bill, I am confused. In addition what does history tell us about building up passenger loads at small resort communities, simple answer it takes time and risk that statistically pays off big for the communities with more dollars being spent in town with increased visitors not to mention the ease of accessibly for locals. Look up Aspen, Vail, Jackson Hole, etc. on how there air service has turned out benefit vs risk.

      • Friar Tuck March 15, 2012 at 10:08 pm #

        Don’t be confused, current debt to MLLA is 44 million and climbing for this airport boondoggle.

        MMSA only pays subsidies for winter flights that will end next month. Discussions to scale down the summer flights are rumored to be under consideration because of the reduced government subsidy tax dollars generated this winter.

        The support personnel that manage and maintain the airport are not on MMSA payroll, they are supported by our tax dollars year round.

        I keep hearing about the ” major returns” generated by the commercial flights, but that money must leave town as fast as it arrives because we have nothing to show for this mammoth windfall.In fact we’re about to have a lot less major airport windfall dollars if MLLA’s request for a writ to force the Town to immediately pay its $42 million lawsuit judgment debt is successful.

        People who frequent Aspen, Vail or Jackson Hole do so for the amenities those resorts already have in place. Another bubble building or a Welcome to Mammoth sign isn’t going to change their minds anytime $oon.

  3. Big AL March 14, 2012 at 10:04 pm #

    So dump more money into Mammoth airport, to up grade things, that should have been done prior to this, and of course, the feds will have to subsidize the upgrades. Mammoth payed to have it where it is, Bishop just didn’t have the big money. The money that is seeming to leave town. Sad.

  4. Daris March 15, 2012 at 9:02 am #

    I have heard of several horror stories of people trying to get into or out of the Mammoth airport. Bennett here is another one if this is to long please make it a letter to the editor.

    The Mammoth airport may meet FAA safety requirements but it is still unsafe to land according to the flight crew on the plane that was suppose to land this Tuesday. Yes the winds were horrible and the weather stations had predicted it. I saw on the web site that the plane was delayed from LAX but was still suppose to fly. So I took my passenger to Mammoth to catch a flight so she could get a connecting flight to Chicago. When we arrived at Mammoth they could not give us any more information than yes plane was coming but delayed. Finally after an hour the plane had left LA. So baggage was checked by the way there were 20 or 30 other passengers mostly skiers from the looks of luggage (skies, boots, etc.). Another 30 minutes and passengers were told to go through security. The Plane was due at any time so I left my passenger and returned to Bishop. The plane did arrive at Mammoth but did not land. This left passengers with a problem how to get to planned destinations. Hire a car only 1 available, hire a limo or taxi which my passenger (at the cost of $25) and several others did to get to Bishop and then on to Bradys (at who know what cost) with hopes someone from down south would meet them to take them the rest of the way. The passengers on the plane coming to Mammoth I am told (not sure if true) were not able to get money back because they got a flight. And who knows what happened to all the passengers trying to get out of Mammoth, extra cost, not making connections, trying to find a place to stay until another flight? Well I for one will not use the airport for any flight and if this happens to very many people and they tell their friends visitors will stop using it also.

  5. Unimpressed March 15, 2012 at 9:34 am #

    Thank you, Professor Hughes.

    I now know more than I ever wanted to about two airports: Burbank’s Bob Hope Airport and Mammoth’s No Hope Airport.


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