Mammoth Lakes Tourism Executive Director John Urdi, Mammoth Mountain Senior V.P. Eric Clark and a pair of aviation consultants [The Four Horsemen of the Sierra?] addressed the Inyo County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday regarding their vision for the future of local commercial air service.
They were aided in their presentation by Deputy Airport Manager Ashley Helms. If you didn’t know she was a county employee, you could have sworn she was on the consulting team.
She even sat with the consulting team.
Their ultimate goal: To convince Supervisors to invest more heavily in air service, specifically, in a new terminal for Bishop Airport.
The timing may not have been ideal, given the lackluster performance of this summer’s air service.
MLT Director Urdi said passenger load factors hovered between 45-50%, down from historical numbers “in the 50s.”
He said charter service into Mammoth for the summer performed roughly the same.
The charter service was only available two days a week (Fridays and Sundays) from Mammoth to Carlsbad and Hawthorne.
The United service was to SFO.
One of the consultants, Matt Skinner, CEO of Colorado Flights Alliance, gave a presentation where he laid out the argument that the Mammoth/Bishop market bears a striking resemblance to the Telluride/Montrose market.
Skinner also previously worked as a V.P. of Sales and Marketing at Telluride Resort.
Telluride draws 500,000 skiers per year. Its local airport is notoriously unreliable because of weather. Montrose, according to Google, is a 1 h. 24 m. drive (65.7 miles) from Telluride. It is located in a different county.
Montrose Airport, according to the local Montrose paper, handled 233,745 enplanements in 2022 and 229,395 deplanements for a total of 463,140 passengers, up 20% over 2021.
Montrose, Colorado boasts a population of just over 20,000. Montrose County has just over 43,000 residents.
Skinner said investment in the local airport has paid off, to the point where Montrose Airport recently received a $47 million facelift/upgrade (which required a 20% local match). He says the upgrade is already projected as being too small before it’s even complete.
In what he described as a “Frankenstein’d” forecast, he believes Bishop Airport could generate 50,000 enplanements (a fivefold increase to current numbers) within five years (see attached graph).
He says the projection is realistic because both communities (Mammoth/Bishop and Telluride/Montrose) are “eerily comparable.”
But then, Supervisor Matt Kingsley took it upon himself to parse the eeriness.
One big difference between the two places is drive market. 30 million people live within a five hour drive of Mammoth and Bishop. “What’s the drive market for Telluride?” he asked.
There’s Denver, but … there are also a helluva lot of resorts between Denver and Telluride. Places like Aspen and Vail. Whereas all that stands between SoCal and Mammoth is … Big Bear.
Skinner tried to sell Kingsley on the idea that Phoenix is also a drive market for Telluride. He said it takes a mere seven hours to make that drive.
Of course, he is a salesman prone to exaggeration.
Google lists that drive at 485 miles/7h. 56m.
*By comparison, Phoenix is located 565 miles from Bishop. Hmmm, Phoenix … Our new drive market?!?
Kingsley’s understated point being, Telluride’s remoteness requires air service. Does Mammoth/Bishop require it? Should Mammoth/Bishop really be considered “eerily comparable?”
But back to the forecast.
The air consultants noted that the reliability of Bishop Airport versus Mammoth has finally convinced folks that air travel to the Sierra is not a complete crapshoot. This has led to increased winter season load factors (nearing 70%) which are finally in line with peer resorts.
The irony is that Mammoth Mountain’s Eric Clark attributes the move to Bishop Airport and increased reliability to the FAA’s “vision” for regional air service.
*The credit actually goes to the now-defunct Advocates for Mammoth and people like Owen Maloy and John Cunningham who told Mammoth Mountain and the Town of Mammoth Lakes and the Federal Aviation Administration some twenty-five years ago that Mammoth Airport was the wrong choice and that Bishop was the better option.
As to the 50,000 enplanement number forecast, that could be realistic – it’s just a function of how much the community partners are willing to invest. Pay for more seats and you’ll undoubtedly draw more passengers
The maximum number of enplanements achieved since commercial service was reestablished back in 2008-2009 has been 30,000. But it cost nearly $3 million in flight subsidy to achieve that … a decade ago.
Helms said the Feds are ready to shower money on regional airports which boast “shovel ready” projects. The application deadline is Fall 2025.
To get “shovel ready” they’d have to spend about $35,000 on “planning.”
And then hope the sunk cost and FOMO makes people want to build it.
As to a build, the minimum local match (for any FAA construction award)required is 5%. Though Helms said “We’ll compete better” if prepared to match greater than 5%.
If Montrose is used as the comp, 5% of $47 million is $2.35 million
Supervisors were non-committal. Supervisor Griffiths said airport expansion amounted to a growth v. quality-of-life question. “There’s more to this than straight economic benefit,” he said.