Commercial air service success 'unprecedented'

Better than expected.
Much better than expected.
Really, really great, in fact.

These conclusions by Mammoth Mountain about the success of air service this past year indicate that Mammoth is getting on the map in ways that will benefit not just the economy, but much more.

First, it’s turning out to be a very good investment for both the Mountain and the region, no small matter, given the recession.
“What we are getting is a $23 million dollar return for a $2.2 to $2.5 million cost,” said Howard Pickett, the Mountain’s Chief Marketing Officer.

Most of that return is seen during the busy winter flights, but $5.1 million comes directly from the new, summer service (the number is derived by multiplying the amount of money a typical person spends while here, which is $1,600, times the number of fliers).
That ROI, in and of itself, is impressive, especially given the short amount of time the Mammoth Yosemite Airport has been open to commercial service.

In the past year, the airport had 14,400 “enplanements” (the number of times a passenger boarded a plane), far above the 10,000 needed to maintain the large Federal Aviation Administration grant that helped develop the airport and is critical to its operation.

“This is an unprecedented success,” Pickett said. “And it’s getting noticed.”

Airlines and the FAA both are starting to pay close attention to the numbers, Pickett said.

That can only mean good news for the airport and the region, as airlines realize there is a market for their services and become more willing to invest in adding flights to and from Mammoth.

What’s more, the numbers for enplanements are not only going up, they are going up very fast, he said.

Advance bookings for this winter are up 60 percent over this time last year, with the new San Francisco flight picking up seats especially quickly.

Summer bookings were also higher than expected, by about one percent, something Pickett expects to only increase as more people learn about he service.

“Next summer should be even better,” he said. “We now have an extensive marketing program in place, not just the Mountain, but also the Town of Mammoth and Mono County and there will be one more year behind us of overall awareness about the service, so that will bring in more people as well,” he said.

Rusty Gregory believes the summer season has huge potential.

“There are four million people a summer visiting Yosemite,” Gregory said.

The demand is there, we just need to up our distribution network.”
And, according to a recent passenger survey, most either would not have come without the flights, or, will come to Mammoth more often because of the air service, he said.

No matter how you look at it, both kinds of behavior translate to more money coming into the local economy.

But there’s a rub. Even if the cost of the air service is “just” $2.5 million, as compared to some $23 million in returns, that’s still a lot of money for a relatively small county, town and ski hill.

For the past several years, the Mountain and the Town have been subsidizing some airline enplanements in order to compensate for the still-slow off-season months of June, September and October (at a cost of about $278,000 each per year).

Earlier this year, the airport-wary Mono County joined in, in return for getting year-round service from Horizon Air. The county agreed to help pay for the subsidies, with a $45,000 per year maximum contribution.

Added to the Town and ski area’s contributions, the total subsidy amount was about $600,000.

Now, given the growth of air service, the time is ripe to get all three entities on board equally, according to Gregory.

And no, the recession is not a good excuse to say no.

“We are all trying not to spend money, so this is a difficult time to spend more ... but we can’t expect to change our economic future just by cutting,” he said.

“We can’t do the same thing and get different results. This is the one thing that we are doing that is clearly showing a huge benefit. This is exactly what government is supposed to do; invest the public’s money judiciously, in things that show a good return.”

Splitting the cost of subsidy next year, brings the bill for each entity – town, county and ski area – to $215,000.

That’s no small potatoes to a county struggling to pay its bills, and Dave Wilbrecht, Mono County Administrator, knows it will be at the top of the county supervisors’ minds when he takes the request to them.


By George Shirk
Mammoth Times Senior Writer

Now wasn’t that easy?

Mammoth and United Airlines opened the door to San Francisco and Northern California a week ago, and it could not have gone more smoothly.

“It only took 35 minutes,” swooned Mammoth Mountain Ski Area marketing director Joani Lynch of the flight.

Gone was the seven-to-eight hour drive from the City and the East Bay.

Also gone was annoying hum that a prop-jet makes (Horizon). This is a full-on, 66-passenger Bombardier jet that handles high altitude.

The once-a-day flight sailed in right on time, under clear skies, shortly before five o’clock on Thursday, Dec. 16, with MMSA executives (we’ll count Woolly) and a herd of skiers and snowboarders clambering off behind them.

Cameras flashed. High fives ensued.

Greeting the passengers at Mammoth Yosemite Airport were town and business leaders, who exchanged Champagne toasts, the Champagne courtesy of the ski area.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco the next day, the San Francisco Examiner appeared with a full, four-page wrapped cover about Mammoth.

The unlocking of San Francisco also included a snazzy set of photos on the MMSA Facebook page, with Woolly riding BART, posing at the Golden Gate Bridge, riding cable cars all over the hills and the requisite pose at Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill.

And to think, all it took was years of airport reconfiguration, years of negotiation, town in-fighting, federal intervention (the FAA), the introduction of the Transportation Security Administration, a series of long Mammoth Mountain Ski Area and town studies and, finally, staffing.