Goose and the Golden Egg:
The Impacts of Sedona Airport
by Dr. David Allan
Part Two of a Two-part
note: The Red Rock Review regularly offers space to local
political organizations and affilated groups to express their
view on current local issues.
a former physician and educator, has lived in Sedona for eight
years. He is secretary of the Verde Regional Airport Committee.
The following are excerpts from his forthcoming book on the
recent history of Sedona.
was founded in 1955 as a result of the entrepreneurial vision
of two businessmen/ pilots, Ray Steele and Joe Moser, when
they bulldozed a dirt runway across Tabletop Mesa. The two
men sought to obtain better access to and from Phoenix in
an era when I-17 was not even conceived and traveling to Phoenix
was a six-hour adventure.
Commuter air service
from Sedona to Phoenix is no longer available, having ceased
operating in 1995. Even if there were, the total time from
leaving home to arriving with bags at the commercial terminal
in Sky Harbor would approach two hours. For most Sedonans
today, the 120-mile journey to Phoenix is accomplished in
less than two hours by road.
It is doubtful
that Sedona Airport can ever provide easy access to the national
air transportation system for 90 percent of the citizens of
Sedona who do not own or have access to a friendís plane.
Unless one decides to take a tour or charter a plane, the
airport provides no transportation services to any citizen
who is not in a pilotís family or close circle.
Since the end of
the 1960ís, every decade has seen an immense change in the
mission and operation of Sedona airport. To recap briefly
some of the salient points from last monthís article in this
The 70ís began
with the owner of the land, Yavapai County running the airport.
To quiet the public and pilot discontent with the Countyís
management, three pilots founded the Sedona Oak Creek Airport
Authority (SOCCA), leased the 230 acres on top of the Mesa
from the County for one dollar per year and took over the
airport management. Their stated objectives were to enable
private businesses to supply services to local and transient
aircraft owners and to keep the Authority itself out of operating
The 80ís saw Jack
Seeley start a commuter service to Phoenix (Air Sedona) and
Ray Bluff introduce helicopter tours. The Airport Restaurant
and Sky Lodge opened, and the number of aircraft based at
the airport grew from 35 to 90.
The 90ís saw radical
changes. The commuter service folded two years after Jack
Seeley sold the business, the Brunners began their biplane
operation, and helicopter flights increased dramatically.
Most importantly, the philosophy of the original founders
of SOCAA not to itself operate any business was completely
According to estimates
supplied to the FAA by the Sedona Airport Administration (SAA)†
for 1999, 103 aircraft were based at Sedona Airport, including
the air tour and charter planes. Some 80 pilots (0.01 percent
of the total local population of 15,000 in Sedona and Big
Park) have private planes based at the airport; SAA estimates
that they make 7,500 take-offs and landings (i.e. 3,750 trips)
annually for an average of 0.8 trips each week.† It is from
these privileged few private plane owners that each Board
of Directors of SAA recommends its successors to the county.
On its current
Web site, SAA lists six air tour operators and three charter
and flight instruction companies. According to figures in
Sedona Airport Master Plans, these operators were responsible
for 4,686 operations (landings and take-offs) in 1992, or
18 percent of the 26,036 total operations for that year. By
1997, the last year for which accurate figures are available,
tour operators were responsible for 17,349 operations, or
42.4 percent of the 40,897 total operations for that year,
an increase of 370 percent in five years. If each plane held
three passengers, the 8,674 trips serviced 26,023 tourists,
or 0.65 percent of the estimated 4 million tourists coming
to Sedona each year.
Also in 1997, itinerant
general aviation operations (private planes flying into and
out of Sedona from other bases) generated 9,304 landings and
take-offs, 22.75 percent of the total operations. A good number
of these aviators are on the pilotís picnic circuit, where
they fly into Sedona for breakfast, lunch or dinner and the
challenge of landing here. Others fly in for the day or for
In sum, by 1997
tour operators had grown to be the largest category of airport
users, yet they serviced less than 1 percent of the tourists
who visited Sedona. The tour operators have only begun to
tap the total tourist market.
In 1994, Sedona
Oak Creek Airport Authority began doing business as Sedona
Airport Administration (SAA), and bought out the three aviation
services providers (FBOs). By so doing, the administration
took complete control of the aviation fuel, hangar and apron
parking businesses on the Mesa and became the infrastructure
for the inevitable, continuing expansion of every aspect of
aviation operations, including tours.
SAA derives its
income from aviation fuel sales, hangar and apron parking
leases and rents, office and space rental, and a percentage
of the gross revenues of the businesses on the Mesa. This
money is used to operate the airport and for the Capital Fund
to improve and expand the airport services and facilities.
Since Yavapai County
owns the Mesa and countersigns every lease, SAA and the other
eleven businesses on the Mesa, including the Lodge and restaurant,
pay no property taxes. SAA leases the 230 acres from Yavapai
County for one dollar per year, which is far below the going
market rate. In effect, the taxpayers of Yavapai County are
subsidizing SAA and the other businesses on the Mesa, including
the tour operators.
In May 1999, the
College of Business of Arizona State University prepared a
study for SAA on the economic benefits of Sedona Airport.
The study shows that, in 1998, the SAA and the 11 on-site
businesses located on the Mesa, together with airport capital
improvement projects, generated $4.8 million in gross revenues.
Sky Lodge Ranch and the Airport Restaurant generated a large
part of these revenues. Seventy-six airport employees took
home approximately $1 million of the revenues.
The study further
states that, in 1998, 15,408 air travelers arrived at Sedona
Airport, 0.39 percent of the estimated annual four million
visitors to Sedona. These travelers generated $1.6 million
in direct revenues in the Sedona region outside the airport,
or 1.24 percent of the $129 million in direct revenue that
the Chamber of Commerce estimates tourism generated in Sedona
in 1998. If the loss of income from the below market lease
of the Mesa to SAA and the loss of property taxes from businesses
on the Mesa is taken into account, the $1.6 million would
be considerably diminished.
In sum, the airport
serves as the entry for 0.39 percent of the visitors to Sedona
and has a minimal dollar impact on the Sedona economy.
In May of this
year, the Sedona Noise Abatement Committee, in cooperation
with SAA, sent out a community-wide survey seeking information
about how aircraft sound affects the quality of life in Sedona.
The Committee received 1,479 responses.
In answer to the
question Do you have a problem with aircraft sound where you
live, work or hike? 50 percent replied Yes.
In answer to the
question Which types of aircraft are a problem for you? 33
percent replied None. Among the 67 percent of respondents
who had a problem, helicopters and biplanes ranked highest.
is clearly a problem for a significant number of Sedona residents.
The Declaration Policy of the recently revised City of Sedona
Ordinance on Sound Regulations states that the people have
a right to, and should be ensured of, an environment free
from excessive sound and that every citizen has a right to
the peaceable enjoyment of their private property, and the
usability of their commercial and industrial property.† According
to City staff, the performance standards of the Ordinance
expressly exclude noise of aircraft operations, presumably
because the City Council has been advised that they have no
control over aircraft flying over the city and that this is
the prerogative of the FAA. However, independent legal counsel
suggests that aircraft noise may well be subject to a noise
ordinance because of the Cityís power to protect the health,
safety and welfare of its citizens.
In the fall of
1996, the Sedona Ranger District monitored aircraft noise
at different sites in the Sedona area. On Cathedral Rock,
in the four and one-half hours between 1 pm and 5:30 pm on
Thursday, October 5, 1996, aircraft noise was audible 86.5
percent of the time. There were 129 instances of airplane
noise onset, 17 instances of jet noise onset and 22 instances
of helicopter noise onset.† The average period of time in
which aircraft noise was not present was 1 minute, 4 seconds.
For every one minute without aircraft noise, there were 6
minutes and 25 seconds of aircraft noise. No records are available
for a Saturday or a Sunday.
In Secret Canyon,
during the four-hour period between noon and 4:30 pm (with
breaks) on Monday, November 25, 1996, aircraft noise was audible
54.6 percent of the time. There were 34 instances of airplane
noise onset, 45 instances of jet noise onset and 10 instances
of helicopter noise onset. The average period of time in which
aircraft noise was not present was 2 minutes, 26 seconds.
For every one minute of natural quiet, there was 1 minute
and 12 seconds of aircraft noise. No records are available
for a Saturday or a Sunday or for periods in the peak tourist
In Boynton Canyon
during the three and one-half period between 11 am and 3:30
pm on Monday, January 27, 1997, the helicopter noise onset
rate was one helicopter every 7 minutes, 48 seconds.
The snapshots of
these time periods show that ground visitors to popular red
rocks destinations who seek natural quiet, serenity and a
peaceful experience will instead find frequent aircraft noise.
If tranquility is the goose that lays the golden egg of Sedonaís
legacy and reputation, all are being placed in danger.
In Grand Teton
National Park, the Jackson Town Council and the Teton County
Commission have joined with local groups to petition the FAA
to temporarily ban helicopter tours until environmental impact
studies have been done to ascertain their effects on people,
wildlife, the parkís tranquility and the tourist industry.
In Sedona, Yavapai
County, the owner of Sedona Airport, supports the air tour
industry through its subsidies of airport operations. The
Sedona City Council supports the air tour industry by remaining
silent and excluding aircraft noise from its Ordinance.
is smack in the middle of Sedona. Every plane that lands or
takes off passes over residential and commercial property
and sometimes schools and other places where large numbers
of people gather. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)
statistics show that 49 percent of general aviation accidents
occur during approach and landing and another 27 percent occur
during take-off and climbing.
The proposed Control
Tower will not have radar, only wireless communication with
aircraft within a four- or five-mile radius of the airport.
No matter what routes the tower chooses to bring planes into
- and take them out of - the airport, the planes will have
to fly in and out over somebodyís house.
Itís a numbers
game. The more flights that go over, the more likely that
eventually an accident that will affect a structure and people
on the ground. This is a heavy burden† for Yavapai County
and SAA to carry.
that in 2001, somewhere near 50,000 operations (landings and
take-offs) will take place at the airport, an increase of
92 percent from the 26,036 operations a decade ago. The 1999
Sedona Airport Master Plan states that† FAA standards allow
the Annual Service Volume (ASV), the number of annual aircraft
operations accommodated by the current runway system, to be
230,000 operations. The Master Plan deals only with the continued
expansion of operations, it does not address any concept of
Plans are in place
to widen and strengthen the runway, build more hangars, enlarge
parking aprons and issue bonds to expand the terminal. One
antenna farm is in place and another is planned.
SAA has applied
to the City Council to change the zoning on the non-aviation
land areas on the mesa from public service to commercial,
which would allow SAA to further develop the Mesa. Ideas that
have been talked about include an industrial park and also
expanding the Lodge and building a convention center. If approved,
either through the new Community Plan or by a separate Planning
and Zoning process, rezoning would increase the monopoly of
230 acres of the most beautiful land in Sedona by a few† privileged
pilots, their friends and tour operators.
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Review expects and welcomes commentary in the form of articles,
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