Should the Jackson Hole Airport Lease Extension Wait for Safety Audit?
Several conservation NGOs insist that the National Park Service should more thoroughly consider safety issues before extending the lease that currently allows a jetport to operate within Grand Teton National Park.
Jackson Hole Airport, this country’s only commercial airport situated in a national park, currently operates under the terms of a lease (Airport Use Agreement) that is not due to expire until April 2033. That’s nearly two dozen years hence, so there should be plenty of time to work out a lease extension, right?
Well, not exactly. The key consideration is this: The spigot that pours federal subsidy dollars into a commercial airport like this one is turned off if there’s less than 20 years left on the lease under which it operates. Jackson Hole Airport currently gets around $3.3 million a year in Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Airport Improvement Program funds. A subsidy like that would be a terrible thing to lose. Also at risk is the preponderant share of the funding for the airport's $30 million terminal upgrade. If you are the airport manager, prudence demands that you get your lease extended as soon as you can for as long as you can.
Since several years or more are needed for mandated studies, public comment, redrafting, and other routine requirements, the lease extension process currently underway was initiated far in advance of the Federal Aviation Administration’s 2013 drop-dead date for subsidy eligibility. In fact, the process that was begun in 2005 may be just about to wrap up. Having issued the draft environmental impact statement this spring, and having now nearly reached the end of the public comment period (moved back to June 15), Grand Teton officials are poised to ink an agreement to extend the airport’s lease to 2053.
Some people fear that the terms of the proposed agreement may not adequately protect the interests of the park and the public. Most conspicuously, an alliance of conservation NGOs, the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance and the National Parks Conservation Association, has asked the park to consider the results of an ongoing airport safety study before tacking 20 more years (two more ten-year terms, to be more precise) onto the airport’s existing lease.
The alliance hastens to add that it does not seek the airport’s removal or downsizing, and is aware of the facility’s key role in the region and contributions to the local economy. We might add that there’s nowhere to build a replacement airport, anyway.
The airport safety audit that the alliance wants Grand Teton officials to incorporate into the draft EIS won’t be completed until next spring. When a 60-day comment period is added in after the report’s release, the result is a delay that would be in the neighborhood of ten months.
Given their level of concern for meeting the April 27, 2013 federal funding deadline, airport officials are leery of any delay, much less a ten-month or more delay linked to a draft environmental impact statement. Of all the National Environmental Policy Act requirements, the EIS process demands the most stringent level of analysis and is most vulnerable to procedural delays and legal challenges that can drag on for years.
The National Park Service does not seem disposed to side with the alliance on this one. Park officials have maintained that it’s not necessary to wait for the safety audit, since new safety information can be incorporated into the airport’s operation after the lease is extended.
Postscript: The safety audit currently underway at Jackson Hole Airport was triggered by a spate of accidents, including a dozen instances of aircraft running off runways in the span of just 14 months. (There were two such instances in December alone.) The worst of the accidents occurred in February 2008 when a United Airlines jet with 115 passengers and six crew members aboard slid off the runway, producing an engine fire and one minor injury.