By Deb Murphy
The Federal Aviation Administration will fly to the Eastern Sierra Friday to take a look at the Mammoth Lakes and Bishop airports, then meet with the Eastern Sierra Council of Government, for a discussion of regional air service.
Improvements to both facilities were the focus of consecutive Inyo County Board of Supervisors’ meetings, starting with a presentation by Mammoth’s Public Works Director Grady Dutton last week and Inyo’s counterpart, Clint Quilter yesterday.
Mammoth’s efforts to expand air service hit a snag with an injunction from the FAA in 2003. The injunction stemmed from a lawsuit over the California Environmental Quality Act review’s adequacy. That injunction was dissolved this past May, giving the town the green light to proceed with plans for a 40,000-square foot terminal with three gates and other improvements totaling $30 million.
The proposed terminal is “no Taj Mahal,” Dutton told the Supervisors, but a necessity to handle the volume of traffic, especially during the peak ski season. Dutton said the existing terminal barely handles one incoming and one outgoing plane. The new facility should be able to accommodate three in, three out with a total of 220 people coming and 220 going.
In reference to the upcoming visit by the FAA, Dutton said the two Eastern Sierra facilities “aren’t in competition. We have to have a regional approach.”
Quilter’s report to the Board went through a construction update –pavement work and security fencing are 95-percent completed—and progress on a Passenger Traffic Study, due in a few months. The study will give the County the information needed to determine the feasibility of providing passenger service to Bishop.
One issue both airports face is the choice of potential visitors to either spend time in an airport to fly or just hop in their cars and drive.
Bishop airport still has work to do. Quilter outlined additional phases to meet the needs of commercial flights, including a new terminal, apron and parking in Phase 1. Phase 2 would widen runways to 150-feet, provide for a covered walkway and baggage handling.
The final Phase 3 would include parallel runways and paving improvements with a 10-year window for completion. The total of all three phases is roughly $30 million with the FAA picking up $20 million of the cost.
The Board discussion focused on the obvious restrictions at Mammoth’s facility—little room for expansion and weather issues. While Dutton gave lip service to a regional approach to reliable air service, according to Quilter Inyo broached the topic of a partnership with Mammoth Lakes but got no real response.
Quilter’s assessment is that Mammoth has experience dealing with passenger traffic but the facility has physical constraints. On the other hand, Inyo has no experience dealing with airlines but the facility has few constraints. “We could lease our facility to Mammoth, have a joint operating agreement,” Quilter said. “There are a lot of ways to skin this cat if there’s a desire to do that.”
Quilter recommended that ESCOG form a sub-committee to look at a regional collaboration and figure out the best way to expand reliable, diversified air traffic to the Eastern Sierra.