Monday, January 21, 2013

Monday Newsmaker: Our airport is obliged to let the jets train in Palm Springs


Bob Elsner is chairman of the Palm Springs International Airport Commission. 

He has been a resident of Palm Springs for 11 years, after retiring as CEO of the California Medical Association and spending most of his working life in association management.

Elsner is a member and past president of the Rotary Club of Palm Springs, and he holds memberships in a number of organizations in the community.

During his working career, Elsner also was active in various professional organizations. He served as chairman of the board of the American Society of Association Executives and also was president of the American Association of Medical Society Executives.

In the late 1990s, he was appointed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson as a public member of the state Board of Pharmacy, Elsner served as board chairman in 2000-2001.

Elsner is a native Californian, 1955 journalism graduate of the University of Southern California. He was drafted and served two years in the Navy after college. He and his wife, Nancy, have one daughter, Alison (also a USC alum), who is executive director of United Way of the Desert.

Military Jets this month are resuming training at Palm Springs International Airport, although in quieter T-45s instead of the powerful F-18s. You pointed out that 95 percent of the improvements are funded by the Federal Aviation Administration. Does this obligate the city to allow training?

ANSWER: In a word, yes. Costs of operating and maintaining any commercial airport involves millions of dollars. Revenue generated by airports — including ours — could not possibly meet or cover these costs or even allow the city to have a commercial airport.

This is why the FAA and federal government provide major assistance to U.S. airports in support of an efficient national transportation system.

In almost all instances, the federal government provides 95 percent of all costs of such things as our new tower, runway maintenance, facility and terminal construction and expansion. Costs to the airport and city of Palm Springs amount to a doable 5 percent.

But there is one absolute trade-off: Airports accepting federal funding must permit unrestricted access to U.S. military aircraft and pilots for training purposes.

In 1993, a multiyear noise mitigation study was conducted as part of the extension of the airport’s main runway. It was completed in 2005. About $11 million in federal grants were used to purchase 11 parcels near the airport and to install noise insulation in 200 homes. Are any of those measures under consideration now so the F-18s might be train here again?

In addition to the federal government’s purchase of the land parcels you mention, many single-family homes north of the airport were covered under the Residential Sound Insulation Program study and final phase from the late 1990s through the early 2000s.

I was not an airport commissioner when the runway was extended and federal funds appropriated for the insulation program to benefit those in the airport’s “noise contours.” Recent efforts by airport and city officials, supported by former Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack in working with the Department of Defense, have successfully curtailed military aircraft noise — and reduced frequency of training flights — at Palm Springs International Airport.

So I don’t know if there would be an opportunity to justify airport staff to approach the FAA about a new study. But I imagine it is always a possibility, although I’m not certain if such funding would be available today, especially for an airport that had previously received funds within the past decade.

What’s the status of the tower? Will it improve safety?

The new $22 million tower (95 percent of which is being subsidized by federal funding) is physically completed. There remains some ongoing electronic, wiring and, I suspect, classified installations remaining to be completed. So while no firm completion date has been announced, it’s my understanding that it should be sometime this spring.

I think it is fair to say that it will certainly improve safety. The old (and in many ways decaying and rat-infested) tower had served the airport well over the years, but was woefully in need of replacement, which will offer state-of-the art technologies — not to mention a line-of-sight visibility of the entire length pf the airport runways — which the much shorter and soon-to-be demolished tower did not provide.

Palm Springs International Airport is often rated as one of the least stressful airports. Why?
A survey conducted by listed Palm Springs as one of America’s nation’s “most stress-free airports.” In describing PSP, it cited our convenient patio seating, wine bar, Starbucks, play spaces for both kids and pets, art work, free wireless throughout the airport — and, in particular, “minimal hassles” along with other traveler-friendly amenities. Recent and ongoing terminal improvements, not to mention smooth and uncomplicated check-in and security clearances.

I should include our convenient and reasonably priced parking lots, including our nearby free waiting area for people who pick up arriving passengers.

Then there is the easy proximity to downtown and area hotels. Or offering 10 airlines with numerous non-stop and through-flights, as well as connections to more than 500 cities worldwide through an extensive network of domestic and international airlines.

Volume at the airport has increased in recent years. Why?

This has been pleasant news to all of us involved with the airport —and particularly to Airport Executive Director Tom Nolan — as well as to members of the City Council who have been extremely supportive of the proposals by Mr. Nolan, his staff and the Airport Commission in the many improvements and enhancements that the airport has seen and are planned for the coming months.

Most other airports in Southern California have experienced a slow recovery from the downturn in passenger volume since the nation’s economic decline of recent years. But Palm Springs International Airport has experienced remarkable growth in passenger volume, and — though the final numbers for December are yet to be announced — it appears that 2012 will set a record as the best-ever year for number of passengers for our airport.

Growth in the Coachella Valley, in the form of new residents, increased tourism and added convention business, not to mention more competitive air fares and increased routes and destinations served by the airport, have all contributed to this growth. Outstanding and innovative management by Mr. Nolan and his staff also are major factors.

Do you have a suggestion for the Monday Newsmaker feature? Email Community Conversations Editor James Folmer at or call (760) 778-4625.

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