Tom Hess, who has been chairman of the Telluride and Montrose Regional Air Organization since its inception in 2004, resigned from the board of directors this week, as the quasi-public enterprise that underwrites commercial air traffic to the region adopted new bylaws that effectively shifts the balance of power to the governments that primarily fund it.
Hess was involved with the region’s air guarantee effort even longer than the current TMRAO has existed, having served on the board of the predecessor air organization since the start of the air guarantee program in 1994.
Prior to this week’s reorganization, the appointed members of the board representing the towns of Telluride and Mountain Village – which between them provided 86 percent of the organization’s funding this year – could be outvoted by Montrose plus at-large members. At the same time, 92 percent of the funding has supported flights to Montrose and commercial service to the Telluride Airport has dropped to the point where its sustainability may be at risk.
A perception that this balance of flights may not be optimal – that Telluride taxpayers, in effect, could be subsidizing too many air passengers who don’t visit Telluride – has brought the Air Organization under sharp questioning in recent months. In December, the board removed Dirk DePagter, the Telluride Tourism Board representative to the board, at least in part because he questioned the way in which the organization decided what flights to support. Specifically, he was ousted from the board after he spoke directly with airline executives about service to Telluride, allegedly without fully disclosing the nature of those talks to the board, in violation of board policy.
Under the new bylaws adopted by the board on Tuesday, the number of at-large seats from Telluride and Mountain Village was reduced from three to two, one from each town, and the Telluride Tourism Board and the Telluride Regional Airport were each awarded designated seats. There will also be two nonvoting at-large seats, one from Montrose and one from Telluride.
Shortly after that, the board voted to end the terms, effective immediately, of the remaining at-large members of the board from Telluride. In applying to be reappointed, Tricia Maxon and Rick Houston both said that they believe it should be a top priority for the air organization to support the Telluride airport and ensure its viability, and Maxon expressed her belief that it has been a misconception that the board was not interested in supporting the Telluride Airport.
With that, both of them were reappointed to their at-large seats.
The board then elected Larry Mallard, DePagter’s replacement appointee from the Telluride Tourism Board to the air organization board, as the new chairman. Rick Houston was appointed vice chairman, the post he held prior to the reorganization, and was also named secretary. Mountain Village representative Dan Garner was named treasurer, replacing Maxon in that position.
Rather than immediately tackle the underlying issue of philosophy, and specifically how the air organization should decide what flights to support and to which local airport, the board agreed that a retreat to discuss the matter is necessary. There was no argument put forward to suggest that increasing support for the Telluride Airport will not be high on that agenda.
In the near-term, the TMRAO air services director Scott Stewart reported that advance bookings for March are soft, and are pacing below last year, which was not itself a busy March, he said. In the course of that discussion, the board did not avoid frequent references to the philosophical issues that have been contentious, namely whether the air organization has done as much as it could to support flights to Telluride or, conversely, whether it has done the best it could given the possibilities afforded by airlines, especially prior to runway improvements at Telluride that are scheduled for completion this summer and will allow the airport to be certified to accommodate additional types of aircraft starting next winter.
One major hope for the Telluride airport – the possibility it could be served by Frontier Airlines’ commuter service, called Lynx, on Q-400 aircraft – was doused this week with the announcement that Frontier is shuttering Lynx. The 74-passenger Q-400 is an aircraft that would have been certified to serve Telluride after the runway improvements are complete, and is well-suited to landing and taking off at high altitude.