For the second time in 2020 the Jackson Hole Airport board of directors is having to entertain business ideas it has no interest in to avoid biting the hand that feeds it: the Federal Aviation Administration.
The first decision that fits that bill came in April, when the airport board signed off on a one-year operating plan for scenic helicopter business Wind River Air despite stiff and vociferous community opposition. Telling businessman Tony Chambers no, airport board members said at the time, would jeopardize tens of millions of dollars of federal grant money and possibly even risk commercial air service to the valley.
Now a lengthy dispute between West Bank resident Greg Herrick is reemerging, and it threatens to again force the airport’s hand in order to comply with FAA regulations. Three years ago Herrick applied to compete with Jackson Hole Aviation, the airport’s sole private aviation business (known as a fixed-base operator, or FBO). Required by the FAA to accommodate competition at the public airfield, the airport board of directors was preparing a request for proposals and was moving in the direction of housing two competing FBOs before it announced an about-face. Jackson Hole Airport instead reached an agreement to buy out the last five years of Jackson Hole Aviation’s operating agreement for $26 million, a deal that allowed the board to forgo two FBOs while staying in the FAA’s good graces because the airport itself would be the owner and operator. That proposed business acquisition was met by several lawsuits, courtesy of Herrick, and they dragged on for two years.
Jackson Hole Airport ultimately prevailed on the most consequential complaint, which challenged the legality of how it was financing the acquisition, but in the aftermath was unable to come to terms on a deal bringing the derailed Jackson Hole Aviation purchase back on track.
So on May 26 a missive on Wyoming Jet Center letterhead was mailed to Jackson Hole Airport Director Jim Elwood reinitiating Herrick’s application and reminding the airport of its legal obligations to accommodate competition.
“As you are aware, as sponsor of a federally obligated airport accepting federal funds, you must make the airport available at reasonable terms and without unjust discrimination between type, kinds and classes of aeronautical activities,” Herrick wrote to Elwood. “Nothing has changed from our original application, which demonstrated Wyoming Jet Center desires to and is fully prepared to promptly move forward.”
When the airport board convened over Zoom for its June meeting, members were briefed on the request. Elwood pointed out that, despite the failed purchase of its FBO, two years ago the airport exercised its “proprietary exclusive right” and would take over ownership and operation of the business when Jackson Hole Aviation’s lease expires in April 2023.
In anticipation of that transition the airport is now taking steps to rebuild three of its major hangars and a separate building that houses specialized airfield equipment. The space that’s in flux is where Herrick applied to move into for his competing FBO, and it’s unavailable at this time, the airport is saying.
“The reality is there are no current facilities for a second FBO to operate at the airport today,” Elwood said in an interview.
When Jackson Hole Airport’s board passed a resolution in 2018 exercising its “proprietary exclusive right” and declaring its intent to take over the FBO, that covered its legal bases even though the airport won’t actually take over the business for three more years, Elwood said.
Still, Jackson Hole Airport hasn’t totally shut the door on Herrick or the idea of two FBOs. The airport’s board instructed staff to come up with a realistic timetable for rebuilding the hangars, and that information will be presented at the board’s July 15 meeting. That fact-finding mission, Elwood said, will determine whether there would be any time to house a second fixed-base operator before April 2023 rolls around and the airport takes over.
Elwood wrote to Herrick last week, asking for some clarity about his request.
“Do we correctly interpret your letter as a request that the board issue a request for proposals for a second FBO?” the airport director wrote. “If the board were to issue a request for proposals for an FBO operating agreement having a term beginning when necessary hangar facilities become available, and expiring in April 2023, would Wyoming Jet Center submit a responsive proposal?”
Herrick hasn’t formally responded, but he previewed what he’ll say in an interview.
“My answer is yes, they should go forward with that,” Herrick said. “At least if they issue a request for proposals for a second FBO, as they’ve done in the past, that’s a step forward. And we’re willing to work with them on that.”
(This version of the article clarifies that while the airport board of directors was moving toward a request for proposals, it was never issued. — Ed.)