Mammoth-Yosemite Airport’s commercial service is scheduled to be shifted to the Bishop Airport by late October.
This would mean a daily, year-round flight from Los Angeles and two additional daily flights from Denver and San Francisco during the Winter months (December 15 – April 15).
The Sheet asked Mammoth-based business-owners, lodge-owners, and shuttle companies what they thought of this move and the overall sentiment seemed to be a desire for more details and a coordinated plan from the people in charge of Bishop Airport.
That is not to say people disagreed with the move, rather, the community in Mammoth Lakes and the greater Eastern Sierra just wants reliable air service.
To properly understand where people are coming from, some background is necessary. The Town of Mammoth Lakes has owned and operated the Mammoth-Yosemite Airport since 1992 and before that, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the airport had regularly scheduled commercial air service to the area. In the late ‘90s into the early 2000s the Town decided to bring a similar air service back to the airport. The environmental assessment and CEQA compliance aspect of the project took about 10 years to complete and Mammoth Airport opened for commercial service in 2010.
Since then the Airport has gone through many trials and tribulations and never gained footing towards the goal of decreasing its reliance on offering cash subsidies to airlines to support commercial air service.
The original goal was to offer consistent commercial flights leading to expansion into untapped markets such as Chicago, San Diego, Dallas, and Las Vegas. The Chicago and Dallas flights never panned out. The San Diego flight came and went before people even knew it was a reality and the Las Vegas flight was offered for one season before Mammoth Lakes Tourism and the Town decided it wasn’t attracting enough visitors.
Missteps, bad marketing, and no real vision led to the Mammoth Airport peaking in enplanements in 2013 with 31,000 and by 2019 enplanement numbers were similar to when the airport opened in 2010 – approximately 20,000.
Ten years of less-than-stellar passenger numbers leaves no trace of confidence for people who follow the airport closely. Michael Raimondo, Mammoth’s former mayor who has served on the town’s airport advisory committe as well as the Mammoth Lakes Tourism board, told The Sheet, “We did a terrible job of filling seats and a terrible job at marketing (the commercial flights) … With no plan, Bishop is going to end up with exactly what we have right now.”
Raimondo was not against the move to Bishop but was scared it would be the same ol’ schtick as it was in Mammoth, “If you’re going to do the same thing and expect something different to happen then that is the definition of insanity.”
Matthew Lehman, another former Mayor who owns his own real estate brokerage firm and current real estate agent, agreed, “They are going down to Bishop and not planning it through at all.” Lehman was pessimistic on the airport as a whole, “When the airport was here, things were not thought through properly,” said Lehman as he cited failed marketing, expansionary efforts, and the subsidy paid year after year.
Lehman also wanted to see a plan, “So we will have a bunch of people in Bishop who need rides to Mammoth. Will a subsidy be needed to pay for that. What is the cost of the subsidy going to be (for everything). I don’t think Mammoth’s tax dollars should be used for that.”
The Sheet asked both of these questions to Clint Quilter, the Inyo County Administrative Officer, and he said they were getting the shuttling options analyzed as part of the environmental assessment and were in talks with different agencies on who would be subsidizing a portion of the flights.
The Sheet contacted Tawni Thompson, the Director of the Bishop Chamber of Commerce, about Bishop businesses possibly coughing up money for the subsidies and she responded, “There has not been any official discussion of funds being used. I do think people are aware that at some point there might need to be some funds dedicated.” Thompson said it likely wouldn’t be Bishop’s TBID as it generates less than $500,000 a year.
“The general feeling that I’m getting is people here believe tourists will have no problem flying into Bishop and then going to Mammoth,” said Thompson as she referenced people flying into Reno in order to go to Tahoe (45-60 minute drive from Reno to Tahoe).
But it isn’t just the subsidies people are worried about. Brent Truax, the Managing Director at Sierra Nevada Resort, voiced his opinion at a public scoping meeting earlier this month and in a recent conversation with the Sheet Truax clarified further, “Things take time, especially when you are dealing with the FAA. NEPA/ CEQA takes time and if anything gets appealed you have to go through an appeal process that takes more time.”
Truax gave the Sheet multiple documents related to the Mammoth Airport. One of them had a timeline of how long it took certain Airports to receive commercial air service. Mammoth-Yosemite took ten years, Stillwater Regional Airport took 15 years, Anniston Regional Airport took over 11 years, Rogers Executive Airport took over 10 years, and Las Cruces Airport took over 17 years.
Time was not Truax’s only concern, “The second part of this is why would people fly into Bishop? If you’re in LA and want to go to Mammoth, the amount of time it would take you to drive is almost the same as going to LAX, flying to Bishop, and getting shuttled to Mammoth.”
The year-round LA flight has been the closest thing to success for the Mammoth-Yosemite Airport. When the Bishop Airport opens in October, the LA flight will be the only commercial flight until December 15. What if Los Angeles natives opt for driving to Mammoth… Can Bishop draw enough of a crowd for this flight to be successful?
The aforementioned shuttling from Bishop to Mammoth is brought up a lot when people are asking questions of the airport. Robert Brence, owner/ operator of Sierra Shuttle Services, told the Sheet, “It doesn’t seem like people have taken into account how people are going to get here,” Brence Continued, “Is ESTA (Eastern Sierra Transit Authority) going to shuttle people up here? Will there be a subsidy available to get people to Mammoth? It could be a good thing because the planes are supposed to be bigger and they could bring more people but it will affect me regardless and I could lose some of my winter income.”
Brence estimated 60-70% of his Winter business is shuttles to and from the Mammoth Airport. “I service the United flights almost every day,” said Brence.
“It seems like the people putting it together really have no plans as of right now,” said Brence, “and what happens if the road closes and I can’t get there or other drivers can’t get there.”
A valid concern as the 395 going South has already been closed (2-3???) times this season and on years with heavier snowfall that number only goes up.
Owner of MAWS transportation, Lucas Ropke, told the Sheet that he has offered solutions to MLT and Mammoth Mountain of how this transportation could look. MAWS markets itself towards higher-paying clientele so he wasn’t worried about the day-to- day operations but as of now Ropke told the Sheet he hasn’t seen anything concrete in terms of shuttling.
This could likely be a market solution that Quilter is not worried about or is looking into but as of right now it is up in the air.
So why move the Airport to Bishop?
The main answer is having a reliable air service in the Eastern Sierra. Mammoth-Yosemite Airport is often associated with planes not landing and or high speed cross winds. Raimondo disputed this point, “There are flights diverted from Mammoth that try to land in Bishop and can’t (for the same reasons they couldn’t land in Mammoth), and no one wants to talk about that. In the summer months it is harder to land in Bishop because of the heat.”
One of the documents Truax gave the Sheet was a mapping of cross winds in Bishop and Mammoth. Essentially, Mammoth has higher wind speeds but the cross winds are mainly from one direction. Bishop has less intense cross winds but from two main directions. Mammoth was calm 30% of the time while Bishop was calm 21% of the time.
Still, certain parties have had bad experiences with Mammoth Airport as John Mueller, owner of John’s Pizza and Outlaw Saloon, told the Sheet, “I have had my flight cancelled multiple times. I just want consistent air travel to the Eastern Sierra. Personally I would rather have the airport in Bishop.” Mueller did mention his business is not as invested as other lodge owners and described the goal of the airport as being ‘reliable air service to the Eastern Sierra.’
Another reason to move the airport to Bishop would be the bigger runway that can handle planes like a 737 which is the end goal of the airport; providing long-haul flights to destinations that have previously been untapped. Raimondo questioned this as well, “Airports are in the for-profit business. The bottom line is are you filling the seats? You have to fill airplanes and stop writing subsidy checks.”
Raimondo may seem against the airport but he told the Sheet, “If the airport brings more people to the business in town then I am all for it.” He just questioned the ability of Bishop to do better than Mammoth when so far there has been no plan put in place as to how Bishop will be any better than Mammoth.
This is how most Mammoth Business owners feel about the airport. The goal is to get more people in Mammoth Lakes and in the Eastern Sierra. If that is accomplished then everyone will be happy. But as of right now, it appears Bishop is failing in the exact same way as Mammoth already failed. Hopefully that changes in the future. A plan would be nice