Jackson Hole Airport copes with growth limits

 - October 16, 2007, 10:21 AM

This is a story about an airport in the American West surrounded by towering mountains, an airport nestled amid staggering scenic beauty and smack in the middle of an exclusive playground for celebrities and the quietly rich. It is also an airport beset with land-use issues, zoning fights and noise squabbles.

Aspen, you say? Nope. Jackson Hole Airport (JAC), Wyo. This bustling multi-use field serves everything from home-based Cessna 172s on up to Air Force Two, the official designation attached to the aircraft (more often than not a USAF VC-32A, the militarized, VIP transport version of the Boeing 757) preferred by Vice President Dick Cheney when he commutes to his favorite “undisclosed secure location,” his nearby ranch hideaway. No airports in America can boast such scenery: to the west the nearly vertical ramparts of the Grand Tetons, rising from the 6,400-foot msl base of the valley floor to summits as high as 13,770 feet msl (in the case of the tallest peaks of the range, the Grand Teton). Standing on the ramp at JAC, no fewer than 12 mountains towering more than 12,000 feet msl can be seen.

To the north is Yellowstone National Park, and to the east is the granite wall of the Wind River Range, Wyoming’s tallest mountains. To the south are rolling hills framing a flat valley floor (the early 18th Century trappers’ word for “valley” was “hole”) stretching away to the nearest town of significant size–Jackson, Wyo.

At your feet, the only public-use airport completely within a national park. And one of the smallest, encompassing just 533 acres and with a runway just 6,300 feet long. Combine that relatively short runway with the field’s 6,445-foot elevation on a hot summer day and you’ll see why operators of larger jet aircraft approach JAC with respect.

Booming Airport, Booming Business
But JAC’s quirks don’t dissuade them altogether. Far from it. Hordes of affluent dot-com survivors and high-stakes Hollywood players started moving into Jackson Hole and even further to less settled country far into Montana.

And they came to Jackson Hole in their business jets. More and more business aircraft, some chartered, some fractionally owned, and all in need of a place to lay their weary heads. In 1999, some 5,250 aircraft landed at JAC. Just three years later, 13,100 airplanes touched tires to tarmac during 2002. This annual number is expected to increase as this year proceeds.

Airline traffic has been made to expand at JAC via a $1.3 million subsidy program, money put up by local businesses to encourage carriers operating from major hubs such as New York, Chicago and Atlanta to provide nonstop service to the town. Today seven airlines serve JAC with direct flights, and the local business fathers consider the money well spent.

An airport with booming usage numbers–more airports should have such problems. Commenting on both the heavy use of the airport and the housing boom sweeping the area, Jerry DeFrance, president of the board of directors of the Jackson Chamber of Commerce, said, “Our problems are born of success, and those are a lot better than problems born of failure. A lot of communities would like to have our failures.”    
In JAC’s case, there’s nowhere to grow. A 50-year agreement struck in 1983 between the airport and the National Park Service restricts such expansions. Moreover, many local citizens oppose a longer runway, maintaining it would attract larger, noisier aircraft. Present rules permit 24-hour operations, with voluntary noise-abatement procedures in effect at all times. That includes a voluntary noise curfew from 11 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. Flights below 3,000 feet agl over Grand Teton National Park are banned, and flights west of the Snake River, which roughly bisects the park on the north-south axis, are discouraged. Since JAC is in the park, some flying over park land is unavoidable, but it is to be limited to only those legs made necessary by JAC’s ILS approach and traffic patterns.

Jackson Hole gets snow pretty much constantly from early November through mid-May, a blanket of white that used to lead to some creative visibility augmentation techniques, recalled Jeff Brown, owner of Jackson Hole Aviation, JAC’s only FBO. “Coming in from the north on a sunny winter day meant a nearly 17-mile approach over a valley floor that was pretty much uniformly white. So we used to take our discarded Christmas trees, all the trees we could get, and arrange them in parallel rows along either side of the runway. They worked like a windbreak and stood out against the ground, so they were visible for quite a few miles out.”

During the summer, JAC is the site for a modest air-tour operation, the only one to operate from within the boundaries of a national park. Vortex Aviation Services operates a pair of McDonnell Douglas MD 500 helicopters on decidedly upscale air tours available by reservation only at prices ranging from $90 to $399 per person, depending on the length of the tour. “We fly off park land on the east side of Jackson Hole and up alongside the western side of the Wind River Range, the tallest mountains in Wyoming,” said Vortex general manager Gary Kaufman. “The views are spectacular so there’s no real need to fly over park land, certainly not over the Grand Tetons themselves–mountains you can see from 50 miles away–the way some of the local anti-tour groups are claiming.”

The difference between showing the sights in the Tetons and the Grand Canyon is that the Tetons rise up and the Grand Canyon goes down, Kaufman explained. “That may seem obvious, but it means you don’t have to get as close to the Tetons as you do to the Canyon to appreciate their beauty. You can see the Tetons clearly for dozens of miles on a clear day. You’ve got to fly directly over a canyon to appreciate it.”

In discarding a lawsuit to ban Vortex from JAC, Judge Judith Rogers, writing for a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals, ruled that the court decided in favor of the air-tour operator, maintaining that the plaintiff’s charges lacked “concreteness,” and would “require the court to conduct a purely hypothetical inquiry.” In other words, the court found that the anti-air-tour groups were complaining about conditions they could not prove to exist.

Vortex claims its operations, not nearly all of which are air tours, comply with the 2000 National Parks Air Tour Management Act, and that it accesses the airport via a special-use permit allowing its helicopters to transit this small portion of park property. As far as overflights of park land are concerned, all aircraft are limited to no lower than 3,000 ft agl and no closer than one mile to geographic features that extend above those altitude limits (such as the imposing peaks of the Tetons).

Forces working outside the park combined to lessen the pressure on JAC this winter. “We had a great holiday season with a lot of traffic,” reported Jackson Hole Aviation general manager Allen Moore, “but that volume dropped off right after the holidays, chiefly because of a rise in fuel prices and concerns about a possible war with Iraq. We’re charging $3.14 a gallon for jet-A right now, a lot more than we’ve been charging for a long time. We did have a good summer, though, with a lot of transient jets and piston airplanes, too. The summer tourist season brings in the piston airplanes; we pumped 40,000 gallons of 100LL a month last summer.”

Moore attributes an irrefutable fact of nature to this winter season’s slowdown. “We haven’t gotten the amounts of snow we’ve gotten in years past, and that’s slowed things at the local ski resorts,” he said. “On top of that, a lot of tourism is generally down this winter. You only have to listen to the news to know why.”

Something Has Got To Give
Given the steadily rising attendance at the nation’s flagship national parks, a busy summer (in lieu of the debilitating influence of a Mideast war) seems a certainty. And with that increase in use will come an increase in the community controversy over the future of this unique airport. “To the south are the exclusive homes of the rich and famous, people who have spent so much to come up and get away from it all,” said Brown. “To the north, east and west are parklands we can’t fly over, except for that narrow corridor defined by our ILS. Our potential for growth is very small. But the demand for what we do is steadily rising. So something has got to give.”


This is for Allen Moore, who tried to save my husband's life, on July 24, 2004. I plan to visit Jackson Hole July 31-aug. 5, and hoped to meet and thank him again. Marilyn Gerrets

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