During its regular meeting Tuesday, Mono County’s Board of Supervisors voted to enter into a partnership with the Town of Mammoth Lakes and Mammoth Mountain Ski Area in a deal that calls for $45,000 in County subsidies to effectively fill a six-week gap in the Horizon air service schedule between October and the first two weeks of November when summer service has ended and winter service has yet to start. The vote guarantees true year-round air service.
The County’s sign-on has been viewed as historic, in that since Horizon Air started air service at Mammoth Yosemite Airport (MMH) in 2008, Mono County has remained firmly on the sidelines, declining previous offers to partner with the Town of Mammoth Lakes and Mammoth Mountain Ski Area.
Some Board members were initially enthused about the proposal, though supervisors in general said they’d like to see more information and some other options before committing valuable funds to such a deal. Horizon Air reportedly needed an answer by the June 15 meeting in order to allocate planes and personnel for the six-week schedule.
Howard Pickett, MMSA Chief Marketing Officer, made a renewed pitch for the County to join the public/private partnership. Pickett said the minimum revenue shortfall would amount to roughly $500,000, though the language in the deal would effectively limit the County’s responsibility to $45,000, per the Board’s April comments. The economic impact, however, Pickett estimated to be on the order of approximately $8 million.
“If the Town, the Mountain and the County have money at risk, we’ll all work harder to make sure the public knows the service and summer programs are there,” Pickett said. He did qualify the deal by saying that if the County’s involvement is limited to $45,000, Mono’s cap would be taken first, with the rest split by the Town and MMSA. The risk, however, goes down proportionately in a pro rata format as the overall amount of risk decreases. A 45/45/10 split, for instance, would kick in if the subsidy dropped to $450,000.
Pickett said May load factors are running approximately 45 percent, but were ahead of expectations in March and April. “Basically you’re trying to balance the bad months against the good months,” Pickett said. He added that expectations are for July, August and much of September to be good months, and after a soft October, load factors will steadily increase as Thanksgiving approaches.
Responding to questions about using smaller aircraft, Pickett said those would have to be leased from a different service provider, as Horizon doesn’t have smaller equipment it can allocate to the six-week schedule.
Supervisor Tom Farnetti supported the deal, but said he’d like an analysis done on the load factors. “I’m concerned because I think the Town and MMSA made the original decision to cut the service off in October and November because that’s the slowest time of the year,” he observed.
Supervisor Vikki Bauer acknowledged that the County is watching its dollars and June Lake may be somewhat cash challenged, but said the last thing she wants to cut is a potential revenue source, adding that the air service money would be well spent and be a potential boon to the area.
Supervisor Bob Peters indicated the expense is completely justifiable. “It’s a benefit to the County and lets MMSA [capitalize on] travelers as potential visitors to the Mountain,” he said.
Vice Chair Hap Hazard pointed out, however, that one player with no money at risk in the deal is Horizon, which he said is doing nothing but taking profit out of the area on every flight and has “no skin in this game whatsoever.” Hazard said he also thinks Horizon is getting goodwill and advertising out of the association, which he opined has a value to it.
The airline, he said, can lease a smaller aircraft. Smaller load factors, he added, haven’t been well thought out. “I’ve been looking forward to a true working opportunity with the Town and the Mountain,” he said. “I thought our contribution was going to be the last $45,000.”
That money, he argued, should be the last dollars put in. “There’s not an efficient business plan here. We’ve spent 10 years studying land tenure and we have to make this decision today? We’re rushing into it.”
Hazard pointed to three layoffs made earlier in the meeting, and suggested that the Town and the Mountain tackle the first year, gather data and then come back to the County for another run at the deal. He said he’d have no problem being outvoted, but cautioned his fellow supervisors that in his opinion they’d be entering into a premature, flawed deal.
Bauer said flatly that “being the first $45,000 or the last $45,000 makes no difference” and that “now is the time we could make a difference,” adding that a year from now the situation will be worked out either way.
The Board voted 3-1 to approve the funding, with Hazard casting the dissenting vote. Chair Byng Hunt was unable to attend the meeting.
In addition to Horizon flights, preparations are already being made to bring in United/SkyWest jet service from San Francisco, which is expected to start as early as this coming fall.