TELLURIDE – The Telluride Regional Airport Authority board of directors voted unanimously at a special meeting on Tuesday (Sept. 28) to refrain from voting as expected on whether to extend the airport’s winter operating hours for commercial air service.
The reason for the delay is to allow the board more time to determine the true impact such a move might make.
“I think a bad decision could be made if it’s done too hastily,” said T.R.A.A. boardmember and San Miguel County Commissioner Joan May, who made the motion to delay the vote. The motion seemed poised to die for lack of support until fellow boardmember and Telluride Ski and Golf Co. Chief Executive Officer Dave Riley seconded it following an extended silence from the remainder of the board.
Riley’s move seemed almost a direct reversal from the position he maintained when the board last discussed the matter at its regular meeting on Sept. 16. During that meeting he suggested that the board should proceed with a vote at that time.
This time around Riley said that while he still believed the T.R.A.A. board has the jurisdiction to make the decision (opponents maintain it should go before the Board of County Commissioners), he allowed that more should be done to understand and improve upon the airport’s noise abatement procedures designed to minimize the impact of aircraft noise to the surrounding mesas. Neighbors stated repeatedly during the meeting that the procedures are routinely violated and infrequently, if ever, enforced.
“We are overflown constantly, sometimes three and four [aircraft] at a time,” said Hastings Mesa resident Alan Bradbury, describing the location of his home as “smack in the middle of a noise abatement area.”
“Why grant them additional privileges when they haven’t adhered to the ones they’ve already been granted,” he said.
Riley also suggested that an immediate leap to a 10 p.m. curfew might be unnecessary and that a phased approach might be more palatable to the community.
Finally, he said he believed the T.R.A.A. board owed the county commissioners “the courtesy of a conversation in their venue” and recommended getting on their agenda.
“There are a few more questions about what are we stepping into,” he said. “I’m very uncomfortable with that right now.”
The vote came following some two and one-half hours of public comment on a proposal to allow commercial air service into the airport well after nightfall during the winter months. Presently the curfew for both commercial and general aviation flights extends from one-half hour before sunrise and one-half hour after sunset, year-round. As a result, summer flights can land as late as 9 p.m. while winter flights terminate as early as 5:20 p.m. on the shortest days of the year.
While the board, by way of its legal counsel, Bob Erie, believes that it could limit the extended hours to only certain commercial air operations and still remain in compliance with the airport special use permit authorized by the San Miguel County Commissioners in 1985, critics take a different view.
Instead, some say, it would only be a matter of time before the policy is successfully challenged before the Federal Aviation Administration as discriminatory, and the airport would be forced to extend its winter operating hours to general aviation flights as well.
“This is a Pandora’s Box. You open it and you can’t stuff the stuff back in,” said Jack Thompson, a pilot, airport neighbor and T.R.A.A. boardmember during the 1980s.
“Once you open this box it’s open for good and it’s open for everybody,” he continued, adding that by doing so the airport board would then have willingly and knowingly violated the original special use permit. That permit actually allows commercial air service to operate between one-half hour before sunrise and 10 p.m., but limits general aviation flights to between one-half hour before sunrise and one-half hour after sunset.
Yet despite those original provisions, without runway lighting it was impossible to accommodate any night flights prior to the airport receiving an F.A.A. grant in 1990, board chairman John Micetic explained at a previous meeting.
That same year the U.S. Congress passed the Airport Noise and Capacity Act in which it prohibited airport sponsors from placing new access restrictions or curfews on federally funded airports. So while the airport was finally able to accept the commercial night flights allowed in its special use permit, the F.A.A. indicated that it could not do so without also extending its hours of operation for general aviation operations to achieve parity between the two classifications.
While that has been the board’s understanding of its curfew limitations since that time, in late August the F.A.A. offered a new interpretation of the law and indicated that because the 10 p.m. commercial curfew was in place when A.N.C.A. went into effect, the two different curfew times had been grandfathered in.
As a result, it was the F.A.A.’s new opinion that the Telluride Regional Airport could receive commercial flights after dark in the winter while continuing to restrict general aviation to daylight hours only.
“It is our understanding that the board wishes to modify the agreement and make it less restrictive to ‘commercial aircraft’ operations,” wrote F.A.A. Denver Airports District Office Manger John Bauer.
“We have no objection to the proposal, as long as certain provisions are satisfied,” he continued, noting that any changes to the curfew must prove to be less restrictive than their predecessors.
With that the T.R.A.A. board elected to explore its curfew options, stating a need to extend the winter curfew only for commercial flights in order to preserve the $1 million in annual capital improvements funding it receives from federal government. In order to receive that funding at least 10,000 passengers must board commercial flights leaving the airport each year, and the airport is at risk of falling beneath that critical “enplanement” threshold.
Provided they materialize, the later winter flights could conceivably allow a plane to overnight at the airport for an early morning departure the following day without forcing the airline to miss out on the chance to run at least one additional operation and earn the associated revenue.
According to Scott Stewart, Executive Director for the Telluride Montrose Regional Air Organization, the addition of 210 night operations per year could generate anywhere from 1,800 to 10,000 additional enplanements annually, depending on the size of the aircraft used. Additionally, it could inject some $2.7 to $11.7 million into the local economy at the same time, he said.
Telluride Tourism Board Chief Executive Officer Scott McQuade confirmed that people who fly into the Telluride airport are more likely to stay in Telluride and spend their money here than do those who fly into Montrose.
“To hear people encouraging flying into Montrose is troubling,” he said, noting a drain on the local economy as passengers in transit to Telluride first stop in Montrose to stock up on groceries, sports equipment and other goods, shorting Telluride merchants of income and the town of sales tax revenue.
Another remaining issue open for interpretation is the exact definition of a commercial operation as used in the 1985 special use permit.
The F.A.A. considers commercial operations to include scheduled airline service as well as charter flights and other for-hire types of operations like flight instruction and crop dusting – operations that the average person might regard as general aviation, said the T.R.A.A.’s Erie.
Erie said that based upon his reading of the records from the 1980s era meetings, he didn’t believe that the county meant its definition of commercial to mirror the F.A.A., but that it did intend the definition to include commuter and charter flights in addition to regularly scheduled airline flights.
Given the broad F.A.A. definition, however, other types of commercial operators could still challenge that interpretation.
“That’s clearly what our risk is,” he said.
County Planning Director Mike Rozycki disagreed with Erie’s interpretation.
In his review of the records, “I can’t agree that there was clear and convincing evidence of what were commercial flights,” and that the definition included anything other than scheduled airline carriers, he said.
Opponents of the proposed expansion said that promises made when the airport was founded and later, when the T.R.A.A. board received approval in 2004 to expand the facility, had been broken. They also voiced concerns about the safety of the operations, particularly if the airport were ultimately forced to extend the curfew hours to general aviation pilots without the same level of experience as commercial pilots.
“I truly believe this is a safety issue,” said airport neighbor Judith Ingalls, a physician who uses the Telluride airport frequently to shuttle between patients in Arizona and Telluride, she said.
“I think this valley is a big black hole.”
Proponents fell largely into groups that included charter airline pilots and those who think it would be a good move to generate economic activity.
“I would like to see us competitive with other airports,” said Lawson Hill resident John Wontrobski, who characterized the debate as one between being economically competitive and NIMBY-ism.
“I think the safety issue is a red herring,” he said.
The T.R.A.A. board, which next meets in November, plans to meet with the county commissioners in advance of that meeting, perhaps on Nov. 3, “to define what our options are as far as what exactly is being proposed,” said May.
In the meantime it will seek expert opinions to understand the likelihood of being forced to expand operating hours for general aviation on winter nights if it moves to make a change for commercial flights.
“We’d like to know how big of a risk that is,” she said.
Despite Erie’s opinion that the T.R.A.A. could soundly justify the disparity between the two classifications based upon safety considerations about general aviation pilots having less training and experience than commercial pilots, Thompson remained resolute that the rationale wouldn’t hold up under scrutiny.
“The F.A.A. is going to turn you down,” he said.
“You’re not the jury,” said vice-chair Ed Roufa in response.