Letter to the editor: Bishop Airport issues

airportMarch 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.

Lee Hughes
Airport Commissioner
Mammoth Lakes, CA


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5 Responses to Letter to the editor: Bishop Airport issues

  1. Ltri March 20, 2012 at 6:13 pm #

    I believe it is something like 30-40 million+ in FAA or taxpayer dollars plus subsidies by the soon to go bankrupt Town, the Mountain barely avoiding bankruptcy and Mono county. This is the ultimate taxpayer ripoff for no return.

  2. Trouble March 21, 2012 at 6:36 am #

    I don’t see Bishop having the money or desire to upgrade the airport for passenger flights. After all , it is only 30 minutes to Mammoth Airport from Bishop. I think Bishop should look at more ways to taking advantage of Mammoth Airport.

    I would like to know what is allowed to land at Bishop Airport ? Maybe Bishop Airport could become a Cargo Center of some sort? I would love to see more jobs in both towns.

  3. Joe March 21, 2012 at 8:56 am #

    The mountain is not going bankrupt and never was in danger of going bankrupt. Get the facts straight Ltri! The mountain only was in violation of covenants of their loan which has nothing to do with bankruptcy.

  4. Eastern Sierra local March 21, 2012 at 9:13 am #

    Mr. Hughes;
    I appreciate your letter and thoughtful knowledge on FAA regulations and local airport nuances, but during the environmental process ~10-13 years ago (NOP, Draft EIR, Final EIR, subsequent to the Final EIR, and the document’s lawsuit filed by Sierra Club, etc.) I wrote many comment letters and expressed at many public meetings that the airport in Bishop was by far the most logical alternative for analysis. It had fewer environmental impacts and suffered from fewer weather related weather issues than MMH, and was “safer” due to a clear line of sight and lack of winds and snow. Many ski resort airports are not located adjacent to the resort but are in fact, a minimum of 45 minutes away- like Bishop. The supporters of MMH were emphatic that MMH was the preferred alternative and the ideal location without much documentation to support this- thus the reason the environmental document was successfully sued upon. In fact I was told by a planner on the project that the Bishop airport wasn’t ideal because “The Town of Mammoth Lakes didn’t own the airport.” Unfortunately for the TOML, “ownership” of a property doesn’t constitute a legitimate claim of “a preferred alternative” in an environmental document. Subsequently, the TOML pushed for an airport in it’s backyard, now pays for unsold seats in the planes, and got itself involved in a losing real estate venture with MLLA (as a direct result of the the airport) that will cost the TOML either ~$40 million or bankruptcy and possibly end the commercial airline business into TOML.
    Flights into MMH get canceled or delayed fairly regularly throughout winter and despite the multitude of flights occurring, prices on common everyday goods in both Bishop and Mammoth continue to soar (no pun intended) because there are no “freight” flights into either airport- only passenger flights intended to fill hotel rooms and sell ski passes. By the way….it’s called the “Mammoth-Yosemite Airport,” how many people actually fly into MMH and go to Yosemite when SR 120 is closed in winter? And when SR 120 is open you don’t have flights coming in? I would love to see those numbers since that was ANOTHER flawed argument the planners utilized for it’s justification.
    You discuss that BIH could become an alternative airport at the cost of millions of dollars, support from the community, and infrastructure upgrades…..let’s not forget Mr. Hughes that not long ago, MMH wasn’t a viable option as an airport either and that the one of reasons MMH filed a NEPA document (with FAA as the Lead Agency) was to get the Federal funding to make MMH as such, but if the TOML had taken my advice (rather than developers who are now owed $40 million) BIH could VERY WELL be the airport servicing both Mammoth and Bishop, with freight service, fewer weather delays, and probably no judgement of $40 million today. Community support in Bishop was very high for BIH as the preferred alternative and many people throughout the Eastern Sierra supported BIH over MMH.
    The REAL story is the both MMH and the TOML were seeing green ($$$) in the real estate boom of the early 2000’s and wanted this airport so bad that 10 years later the TOML is hurting financially because of it. Please Mr. Hughes don’t obfuscate the current issues with the real sordid history of the airport.

  5. Trouble March 21, 2012 at 6:44 pm #

    Anybody out there know what is allowed to land at Bishop Airport?


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