Local airports are big news of late. Conversations are reportedly underway between Inyo County and Town of Mammoth Lakes (TOML) staff to explore options to improve regional air service for the eastern Sierra. Other stakeholders are also engaging in conversations on how to proceed.
Several events have opened this negotiating window:
First, the Bishop airport is moving forward to upgrade to a commercial airport. Additionally, the FAA came to town last month to inspect both the Bishop (BIH) and Mammoth (MMH) airports, and encouraged a regional solution, suggesting a Joint Powers Agreement (JPA) to oversee airport operations. Third, Mammoth’s airport is proposing a new commercial passenger terminal, at the same time Alterra Resorts is proposing to relocate commercial air service to Bishop. Additionally, the Mountain has announced it wants its TBID revenues spent on the Bishop Airport, and for that reason is holding up approval of TBID renewal.
Other significant actions, many not generally understood, occurred before these recent developments, and should factor into discussions going forward.
Decades of miscalculations
There have been many false steps, over a period of more than twenty years, leading up to the latest discussions about regional air service.
The obvious first misstep was the Development Agreement that the TOML executed with Terry Ballas in the late 1990s to grant private development rights at MMH, a mistake that the town is paying for now and will pay for in annual installments for many, many years to come.
More impactful than the financial settlement with regards to regional air service, the airport is stuck with hangars built too close to the taxiway for large wingspan regional aircraft and even larger wingspan mainline aircraft (this was confirmed by the FAA during the agency’s recent visit).
The next misstep lies with Mammoth Mountain Ski Area (MMSA), which never seemed to understand that the 224-seat Boeing 757-200 mainline jet they wanted American Airlines to bring in back in the early 2000s would never be able to land at the Ballas-constrained MMH.
(Although MMSA made inquiries at that time about using the Bishop airport for B-757 service, Inyo County reportedly expressed ambivalence, and more importantly lacked a long-term airport land lease from LADWP, a precondition to obtaining FAA funding for airport improvements.)
Stuck between the Development Agreement and FAA objections to residential development at the Mammoth airport, a decision was made—reportedly at the suggestion of an FAA official in San Francisco—to shelve airport expansion plans (for a longer and wider runway), and consider bringing in the 76-seat Bombardier Q-400.
In another misstep, it turned out the Q-400 was not quite the MMH airport-compatible plane it was initially thought to be. Having obtained approval for the C-III rated [large and fast] Q-400 aircraft to operate at the constrained B-III rated [small and slow] Mammoth airport, the Town, Airport, Mountain, and their airport planners and consultants, continued to propose larger C-III rated aircraft for MMH, with or without airport expansion or relocation of hangars.
Bad advice, accepted on faith
Aviation forecasts prepared by Kent Myers and Reinard Brandley have included Boeing B-737 and Airbus A319 jets serving MMH from Seattle, Dallas-Forth-Worth, Houston, and Denver. For years, these forecasts have been routinely accepted and forwarded by TOML staff, often with concurrence of Town Council, only to be rejected by the FAA.
In a 2012 forecast, there were projected to be 16 A319 operations at MMH for next winter, 32 the following year, 131 the year after that, and 163 A319 operations in the winter of 2022-2023. That same forecast included 32 B-737 operations at MMH next winter, 32 the year after that, 48 the year after that, 64 the year after that, and 115 B-737 operations in the winter of 2022-2023.
In a 2012 Peer Review, Mead & Hunt questioned whether A319 and B-737 flights would occur at MMH given current load factors, but concluded that, with subsidies, “airlines will likely agree to put these larger aircraft into the Airport.”
That the Mammoth airport is incapable of handling commercial service by these mainline aircraft seems not to have occurred to Myers, Brandley, Mead & Hunt, or their clients.
Yet as recently as two months ago, in a well-attended presentation in Suite Z, Mead & Hunt, under contract with Mammoth Lakes Tourism, wrote — in one of several similar examples, this one evaluating potential Delta Airlines service between Mammoth and Atlanta — “At the 1,946-mile stage length, only the Boeing 737-700 could likely operate at MMH.” But it can’t!
Ironically, before this latest consulting contract was initiated with Mead & Hunt, the consulting firm was retained by TOML to prepare an MMH aviation forecast acceptable to the FAA. In crafting a new forecast, B-737 and A-319 aircraft were excised, with the Q-400 “expected to remain the critical aircraft throughout the 10-year forecast period.” This March 2017 aviation forecast received FAA approval.