Air service subsidies are going to be a fact of life, at least for the forseeable future of Mammoth Yosemite Airport. So said Mammoth Lakes Tourism Director John Urdi, who briefed Mammoth Chamber of Commerce members on Tuesday on the state of the proposed terminal expansion and other air service related items.
“As long as we want new markets, we need to pay subsidies,” Urdi posited. Securing more air carriers and airport hubs requires guarantees, he added. The trade off, Urdi and Assistant Airport Manager Brian Picken suggested, is more flights, more visitors from different cities and more exposure. The airport is already set to increase flights from 4 to 7 this winter season, including expansion into Orange County and more trips to and from San Francisco.
“We’re looking at 26,000 enplanements this year and could easily be looking at projecting 35,000 for next year,” Picken said.
Urdi added that more airlines are calling Mammoth, including Southwest, which recently expressed interest in talking about flying here in the not-too-distant future.
“And they don’t want to fly here for free; imagine that,” Urdi said.
Subsidies, however, also don’t come free. While Mammoth Mountain Ski Area is committed to taking subsidy risks for the winter (the busiest air service season), the rest of the calendar is in need of more financing. Mono County previously stuck its foot into the subsidy pool, committing $45,000 to help last fall. The Board of Supervisors, however, has said that it wants to see more data on county economic benefit before going deeper into its pockets.
Urdi said surveys are being conducted that are geared more toward Mono County visitors, with the hope of proving to the Supervisors the worth of backing air service. Spending tracking, being done in conjunction with American Express, could be helpful. Following where the card is being used yields how much is being spent and where while guests are here. “And with American Express being 22% of the market and their average customer spending an average of 65% more than Visa customers, we can tell how much is being spent here,” Urdi said.
Cancellations, which at 30% were problematic for United service to San Franciso last winter, are being worked on. New weather tracking gear has been installed and the National Weather Service is developing forecasts for Mammoth Yosemite, which Picken said has never been done before.
United arrivals could be scheduled earlier in the day, allowing takeoffs no later than dusk, which would be more favorable to the airline’s flight guidelines.
Meanwhile, all of this activity means more gates and passenger support. The proposed 40,000 square foot expansion, which will boost the number of gates to at least 4, is likely 4-5 years away. Meanwhile, the current 4,000 square feet of terminal is close to maxed out, but will get some relief from a “dome tent” sprung stucture (a la Eagle Lodge) that should be up by mid-October.
The bright spot to all of this is the terminal’s cost, which is estimated at $13 million. According to Picken, rougly 85% of the terminal itself can be covered by Federal Aviation Administration grants, with the rest a mix of funds from Measures A & T, and other government sources. “We’re trying to fund it entirely without general fund dollars,” Picken explained. Any ancillary money needed could be recouped with a potential $4.50 per ticket “passenger facility” surcharge.