Formal action to allow night flights at the airport is expected to take place at another meeting of the airport board on May 26.
The airport authority board also agreed on Wednesday in the course of a joint meeting with the San Miguel County Commissioners to enter into a memorandum of understanding whereby the two entities will engage in “meaningful” consultation on “substantive” airport operational policy decisions in the future.
The MOU, upon its formal adoption by both boards, doesn’t govern the process to consider night flights that has taken place over the last year, however, since both boards agreed that a lengthy public process to review that issue has taken place.
The meeting of the TRAA board on May 26 will follow a meeting of the county commissioners the previous day during which the commissioners will discuss the recommendation it will forward to the airport board. All three county commissioners on Wednesday said that they believe a full process has taken place, to the credit of the community.
Even if the airport board formally votes to extend the airport's hours later this month, as appears all-but-certain, that may not fully resolve the matter, since an entity called No Night Flights Network has said it will file a lawsuit to challenge any such action. Attorney Erin Johnson, representing No Night Flights Network, repeated that vow Wednesday, insisting that the county should undergo a formal land use code review of the proposal to extend the airport’s operating hours. San Miguel County Attorney Steven Zwick has said that the county may not have the legal authority to undertake such a review under federal law.
Proponents of night flights have argued that extended hours would support commercial airline operations at the airport by enabling airlines to schedule flights to arrive in the evening even in the winter, thereby allowing planes to overnight at TEX so that there can be early morning departures from the airport.
Opponents have expressed concern about noise and safety impacts, and have insisted that “no night flights” was a condition of the airport’s original special use permit to operate granted by San Miguel County in the 1980s. The extent to which any such promise was made is among the issues that have been debated, but is, in any case, not incorporated in the airport’s special use permit.
County Commissioner Joan May, who is a county representative on the airport authority board, said on Wednesday that for her the most important issues boil down to safety concerns on the one hand versus whether or not the airport can survive as a commercial airport without night flights on the other. To lose commercial service at TEX, she said, would hamper the local economy.
Members of the airport board at the Wednesday meeting restated their reasons for supporting extended operating hours, notably that the airport’s financial viability is at stake since the FAA requires a minimum of 10,000 annual enplanements for continued financial support of airport capital improvements and maintenance, to the tune of approximately $1 million a year. For the past several years, the airport has hovered just around the 10,000 number. Moreover, some said, the ability to land at TEX after dark in winter is essential to airlines’ ability and willingness to serve the airport year-round.
The MOU, which will be considered for formal adoption by both boards at future meetings, is a byproduct of the debate over night flights. The underlying issue, apart from whether or not the airport should allow night flights, has been the degree to which the airport operates under federal law and Federal Aviation Administration rules and the degree to which it operates subject to the county’s land use authority.
While those questions could be decided by the courts if the No Night Flights Network lawsuit proceeds, both the San Miguel County Commissioners and the Airport Authority Board have expressed an interest in cooperating to the fullest extend possible, without stepping on each others’ toes. To that end, the draft MOU specifically states that it does not restrict either entity’s legal authority or obligations. The MOU therefore may not prevent disputes over which entity has the ultimate authority over specific decisions, such as decisions over operating hours; it does, however, define a public process, including noticing and opportunities for public comment, prior to future substantive decisions taken by the airport authority.