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The Goose and the Golden Egg:
The Impacts of Sedona Airport

by Dr. David Allan

Part Two of a Two-part series

Editorís note: The Red Rock Review regularly offers space to local political organizations and affilated groups to express their view on current local issues.

Allan, 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.

THE PRIVILEGED FEW

Sedona Airport 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.

EVOLUTION

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 magazine:

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 any business.

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 abandoned.

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 a vacation.

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.

ECONOMIC IMPACT

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.

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT

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.

Aircraft noise 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 months.

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.

SAFETY IMPACT

Sedona Airport 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.

THE FUTURE

†SAA estimates 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 containment.†

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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