County reviews jurisdiction, responsibilities at local airport

Looking at noise reduction potential, but few options available

[ By Katherine Nettles ]

If helicopter flight-testing early on a Saturday morning bothers some residents of Gunnison County, there may or may not be much anyone can do about it due to unrestricted federal guidelines. But the county and local airport operators are willing to fine-tune their vendor arrangements to better accommodate everyone involved.

In response to chronic complaints and inquiries about flight patterns in close proximity to residences and early morning helicopter testing, Gunnison County commissioners and Gunnison-Crested Butte (GUC) regional airport manager Rick Lamport held a work session in late August to review their authority over various aspects of operations at GUC and to set up some potential considerations for next year’s strategic planning process. The takeaway was that much of the airport’s most disruptive flight activity is out of county control, but there may be some tweaks available for the future.

Gunnison is considered one of the nation’s 400 primary commercial airports, meaning that it services more than 10,000 people per year. It is classified in the largest “nonhub” category of those primary airports, though, as it serves less than .05 percent of annual U.S. enplanements, and Lamport described how funding for this category can be very competitive.

Lamport said that like any rural airport, without Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other federal funding GUC would never be able to stay afloat. According to the legal contracts, those grant obligations require GUC as a sponsor “to make its aeronautical facilities available to the public and its tenants on terms that are reasonable and without unjust discrimination.”

The airport cannot therefore decline specific types, kinds and classes of aeronautical activities, or individual members of a class of operator or flight times. It cannot discriminate much about what kinds suit it best. “We have limited ability to regulate that activity,” Lamport explained. And the same is true for airspace and flight patterns, since the airport can only manage its ground operations. “The FAA makes those decisions, and we have very little proprietary jurisdiction over it,” said Lamport.

That said, Lamport and Gunnison County commissioner chairperson Jonathan Houck explained that the vendors using GUC do honor some voluntary agreements to avoid holidays, limit Sunday activity and generally stick to airport operating hours.

Lamport further explained that the Gunnison airport is appealing and sought after both publicly and through government operations for high altitude testing. “These helicopters have to be tested,” said Lamport, whether they are deployed for mountain rescues, military purposes, medical transport or other uses.

Houck said he hears from constituents on occasion who don’t want their tax dollars spent on flight testing and training operations. Lamport clarified that the airport does not rely on those operations to pay its bills, and in fact pays its own bills from its commercial flight revenue. The exception to that is that the county did pay into the terminal improvement project to secure financing. “But the airport revenue pays for its operations,” reiterated Lamport, and Houck wanted to emphasize that GUC is not taxpayer funded.

County attorney Matthew Hoyt said he reads the legal language that the county can “reasonably negotiate” with the vendors to some extent, which might allow more jurisdiction than commissioners are exercising currently.

Commissioner Liz Smith asked if early morning trainings could be limited in that way. To avoid discriminating between types of aircraft, she asked, “Is there an opportunity to put restrictions that are blanket for this particular time of use?”

Lamport said they do try, but depending on whether or not an operation is using the airport’s county-owned tether pad for helicopter landings, there isn’t much they can do beyond making a request.

Houck emphasized that the vendors do respect voluntary agreements and that they don’t have to do that with essentially 24/7 availability under FAA regulations. “They are voluntarily limiting their operations, and the relationship that we have has been fruitful; it’s not like they just show up and don’t talk to us,” he said.

Houck said the assets that the county owns can be managed differently if they choose to, and gearing up for next year’s strategic plan exercises, he suggested the board look at possible changes within that limited set of county-owned assets.

“Maybe this is something we can consider…some analysis and comparisons to other regional airports,” he said. “We might have some strategic goals that come out of that.”

Commissioner Roland Mason asked if testing has increased over recent years, and Lamport said it really hasn’t.

“We are at a point where our airport has, especially commercially, taken a quantum leap…especially on the general aviation side,” said Houck. “This might be the next thing to look at.”

“I think it’s important for you to understand that you have the most discretion on the tether pad. You have less discretion with the actual airport,” said Hoyt. But all agreed that the landing fees and some policies and other fees might be considered as well. “And you still have some discretion on those other things,” Hoyt noted.

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