By Stephen Kalish
Not for the first time, the Town of Mammoth Lakes has important choices to make in planning and developing Mammoth-Yosemite Airport (MMH). The Town must now decide how it might break a nearly decade-long impasse with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) over future airport development necessary to safely accommodate large commercial aircraft at MMH.
Achieving resolution will not be easy, and will involve local decision-makers — town staff, commissioners, and council members — who have heretofore mostly stayed away from airport planning issues, and in any event lack familiarity with FAA procedures and airport design guidelines.
In retrospect, it has not worked out well for the Town to cede so much decision-making and oversight responsibility to its airport manager and consulting airport engineer, neither of whom raised red flags at crucial moments over planned development at the airport that could be seen as violating FAA grant assurances or potentially getting in the way of future airport expansion.
MMH exists as a mostly independent fiefdom — an outlying piece of Town real estate operating without meaningful Town oversight— lorded over by its Airport Manager, Bill Manning; beholden to Reinard Brandley, its sole-source consulting airport engineer, to produce FAA grant applications; perennially in need of Town subsidies; and locked in regrettable compacts with its development partner, Terry Ballas.
These marquee actors were all on stage in 1997, when Ballas approached the Town about developing the airport to generate private profits and public revenue. Working for both the Town and Ballas, Brandley produced essential documents for inclusion into the 1997 Development Agreement, and later did engineering work for Hot Creek’s hangar project. Manning failed to pass on concerns faxed to him from the FAA ahead of the Town’s approval of the development agreement with Ballas.
Over the past fifteen years, the trio of Manning, Brandley and Ballas have neither maintained nor created an FAA-compliant airport. Instead, they have enabled a public-private land development partnership that has leased, swapped, developed, and otherwise appropriated Town-owned (but owned subject to FAA grant assurances) airport land for commercial profit-making purposes.
Confronted with an airport too small for large jets, such as Boeing 757s, Mammoth Mountain convinced first Horizon Airlines and then United Airlines to bring in smaller — but still large — aircraft with guaranteed subsidies. (Mammoth Mountain has been the driving force in bringing air service to MMH.) The Town, along with some divisions within the FAA, signed on, but with no plan or commitment to upgrade and expand MMH to accommodate this new fleet of what are categorized in the industry as regional jets.
The current FAA-approved Airport Layout Plan (ALP) dates from December 2000. Subsequent draft — also prepared by the duopoly of Manning and Brandley — were not received favorably by the FAA, which eventually consigned them to the wastebasket.
A major stumbling block is that Hot Creek’s leased corporate hangars are located too close to the taxiway and runway. Airport specific operation procedures for Bombardier Q400 aircraft are required because of these deficiencies. The hangars fronting the runway are located where a relocated taxiway should be built.
The FAA — the usually silent and often reluctant behind-the-scenes partner in this drama — will apparently not make any more grants for new construction until the Town drafts, submits, and obtains FAA approval for an updated ALP. (Environmental approvals are also required.)
Mammoth Mountain, speaking by all appearances as if it is the Town, wants an expensive new passenger terminal — ideally funded by an FAA airport improvement grant — to accommodate the increasing number of flights per day that they forecast will be arriving during the next few years.
Mammoth Mountain successfully lobbied the FAA for a grant to prepare a Terminal Area Development Plan. Using FAA grant money from the 2008 runway rehabilitation project, Brandley (reporting to Manning) has prepared an Airport Layout Plan Update Narrative (ALPUN). (The draft ALP is part of the ALPUN.) Both documents were presented to the Town’s Airport Commission and released for public comment late last summer.
But the draft ALP fails to conform to FAA guidance to prepare a layout plan compliant with FAA airport design standards for existing critical design aircraft (the Q400), and future design aircraft (proposed were the B737-500 and Airbus A319). The thrust of the draft is that the FAA should accept the airport about as it is now, but upgrade its rating to allow larger aircraft in the near future.
Written comments on the draft
ALPUN by the FAA spotlighted the close-in location and excessive height of the hangars in relation to the taxiway, taxilane, and runway, and the lack of adequate separation between the runway and parallel taxiway which is required for large aircraft operations.
The crux of the problem with the draft ALP is that it does not tackle moving Hot Creek’s hangars, and consequently cannot propose an airport expansion plan (beyond sketching in a new passenger terminal and a relatively short runway extension). As evidenced by the FAA’s comments, it never stood a chance of being approved.
Some good news: Town Manager Dave Wilbrecht has made moves in the past few months to “take back the airport,” assigning Community Development planners and Public Works staff to assist the Airport Commission in evaluating and editing the draft ALP. The Airport Commission is in need of all the help and staff support it can muster.
And, in what may have been more a public relations initiative than serious outreach for advice, the Town has retained, for $20,000, the firm of Mead & Hunt, an outside airport design and engineering firm, to do a professional peer review of Brandley’s draft ALP, and to evaluate and respond to FAA and public comments.
That report was released on the Town’s website on Tuesday, Feb. 14.
Meanwhile, Ballas has resurfaced with ideas about exercising his remaining development options on unexpired leases that are part of the 1997 development agreement. The Town has been working with Ballas to develop a restaurant and retail project at the airport. But while he and the Town view his lease options as vacant airport land ripe for commercial development, the FAA might see it as reserved aeronautical land, protected by grant assurances for needed airport expansion.
Although the Town claims not to need more airport land for aeronautical uses, and in any event reiterates that it remains bound by the development agreements with Ballas and Hot Creek, they do not discuss where else Hot Creek’s hangars could be relocated to if not on airport land now designated for commercial development.
Mead & Hunt’s report suggests the FAA will eventually want the parallel taxiway moved, and add that this would resolve the problem of the hangars being too close to the runway — without proposing where to put homeless hangars.
Since 1997, the Town has viewed its airport property as developable, for-profit real estate. This mindset shows no sign of changing anytime soon. At this point, there is no local consensus, and hardly any acknowledgement, that larger aircraft require a larger airport.
Mead & Hunt will present their peer review study and recommendations to the Airport Commission on Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 28 from 3-5 pm in Suite Z. I encourage decision-makers and the general public to attend. It should be an interesting meeting.