Airport leaders fly high in Maui
Airport spends big on annual trip for six to fancy Hawaii resort.
Airport board members spent six nights the Fairmont Kea Lani hotel, in 860-square-foot suites with marble bathrooms, private wet bars and balconies. COURTESY PHOTOView our entire photo gallery >>
By Mike Koshmrl, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
March 20, 2013
It’s an era of government austerity featuring budget cuts, canceled travel and unfilled jobs. But in January all five members of the Jackson Hole Airport board jetted to Hawaii where they booked premium accommodations, hobnobbed over an $800 dinner and ran up $2,072 in rental car fees on an island 50 miles long.
The Jan. 6-10 trip took the board and Airport Manager Ray Bishop to Maui for the annual Legislative Issues Conference hosted by the American Association of Aviation Executives. The trip cost $34,919, or about 0.5 percent of the airport’s $6.7 million 2012-13 general operating budget.
It landed the group at the Fairmont Kea Lani, located in Wailea, a seaside hotel the American Automobile Association gives a rating of four out of five possible stars. Ensconced between Polo Beach, three championship golf courses and boutiques, the Fairmont offers free yoga, aqua-aerobics, lei-making, a “canoe experience” and “a refreshing tropical beverage upon arrival.”
Board members deem the trip vital to the airport, which is heavily dependent on federal grants, and say the money spent isn’t taxpayers’. Local elected officials question the use of public funds, some wondering whether the board could be more judicious.
Airport board members immersed themselves in “every meeting, every day” of the conference, Bishop said, attending presentations on topics ranging from a “Washington update” to aviation security and “infrastructure development in an era of declining resources.”
The cost is worth it, Bishop said. Networking with Federal Aviation Administration officials at the conference has led to federal grants for capital improvements at the airport that top $17 million.
Jackson Hole Airport is the only commercial airport in a national park.
“The $6.2 million we got for the glycol pad was a direct result of the contact we made with the assistant director of the FAA [Kate Lang],” Bishop said, referring to funding for an apron that captures deicing fluid.
Some $5 million the airport fetched about five years ago to refinish the runway also was a result of networking at the conference, as was another $6 million the airport received for baggage screening equipment, he said.
“You have to wonder, why has Jackson Hole gotten so much more discretionary money than other airports,” Bishop said. “We’re hitting the ball out of the park.”
Airport board member Jerry Blann said the trip is funded from airport fees assessed to travelers, rental car agencies and airlines, not taxes.
“We do not take one dime of public money,” he said.
Jackson Mayor Mark Barron had tempered criticism: “If that was my choice for my board retreat, I would be paying my own way. At the same time, I’m not in the position to judge that kind of behavior.”
The mayor challenged Blann’s perception of public funds.
“Of course it’s public money,” Barron said. “It’s a public board.
“I begrudge them nothing for their efforts,” the mayor said. “The only thing I would ask is they consider a board retreat in Jackson Hole, Wyo. I hear it’s a wonderful place.”
In a memo describing the trip, Bishop said it is “an excellent way for board members to immerse themselves in the complex environment of airport policy, and to ensure that the board members have insights and knowledge into these complex airport issues, which ultimately result in decisions that best serve the community’s future interests.”
It’s not tailored for airports of any particular size, he said. Sessions focused on the effects of the 2012 election, aviation and the environment, and the FAA’s new “NextGen” flight strategies. Conference receptions, along with a golf tournament, are included in the agenda.
In Maui, Bishop said, he and board members were locked up in conference activities that left little time for leisure.
“Frankly, the conference is pretty busy,” he said. “You start at 8 and it goes until 4. They did not miss one meeting.”
The conference began on a Sunday, with a meeting of the AAAE board and committees. Presentations began Monday and ended Thursday morning.
All told, there were 13 hours of presentations over the four-and-a-half-day conference, according to the association’s schedule. Media attending do so on a background basis only, the organization insists.
When Bishop met FAA officials, he said, he discussed the effects of the sequester and a new “NextGen” approach Jackson Hole Airport is pioneering that’s designed to reduce airplane noise in Grand Teton National Park. Bishop said he spoke with FAA official Lang about grants for a planned $18.5 million terminal expansion.
Lang did not return phone calls for this story.
Blann, like Bishop, agreed the conference has led to federal grants.
“We’ve made some relationships with key FAA officials who, honestly, two years ago, made the difference,” Blann said, referencing the glycol pad. “Those kinds of relationships, I don’t think you can put a value on.”
Staying on top of broader airport issues is key, Blann said, whether the conference is “in Casper or whether it’s in Hawaii.”
“We didn’t choose where it was,” Blann said.
The airport’s general operating budget includes no tax dollars.
“If you look at our budget, the rental cars provide a huge portion,” Blann said. No tax receipts are part of the operating budget, he said, not “property tax, county tax, any kind of special assessment — nothing.”
“It’s not taxpayer money,” the airport director said.
“Let’s say this was a regular business,” he said. “Would it be a good decision for your business? Money doesn’t just fall out of trees. It comes out of a lot of hard work and personal relationships.”
The joint powers airport board is appointed by the Jackson Town Council and Teton County Board of Commissioners. It is subject to Wyoming public records and open meetings laws, like any other political subdivision in the state. Board members serve without pay.
The Maui conference is attended by between 400 and 500 people, Bishop said.
“Typically, the Salt Lake airport, Aspen airport, Denver airport, Boise airport, Helena, Mont., airport and other regional airports are well represented,” Bishop wrote in the three-page memo titled “Key Take Aways: Legislative Issues conference, Maui, Hawaii.”
The American Association of Aviation Executives would not provide a list of attendees to the News&Guide, but a round of phone calls to Rocky Mountain resort towns shows that it’s unusual to send a single representative to the Maui conference, let alone an entire board.
Airports at Aspen, Vail and Steamboat Springs in Colorado and Sun Valley, Idaho, combined sent a single representative to the conference. The Aspen/Pitkin County Airport sent Jim Elwood, its director.
No elected or appointed official from Pitkin County — where Aspen is located — attended, Elwood said.
“Our board has supported the conference because of some of the positives that have come out of it,” Elwood said.
Attending the Hawaii conference, he said, hasn’t led directly to federal grants, but it has allowed the Aspen airport to work through some “critical issues.”
“I think the key is it positions us to have conversations with the FAA,” Elwood said. “To suggest that a grant was signed because of this particular conference I think is too simple.”
The city-owned Steamboat Springs airport hasn’t been able to attend because of high costs, said Don Heineman, the airport’s fixed-base operation manager.
Its budget is directly tied to the city’s, he said.
“I’d love to go,” Heineman said, “but they won’t even let us go to Denver for a seminar. I’m envious.”
Costs have kept representatives of the Eagle County Regional Airport, near Vail, from going to Maui, too, aviation director Greg Phillips said.
“We don’t go because we’re spread pretty thin on a lot of other things,” Phillips said. “It would become kind of an expensive trip for us.”
Phillips didn’t fault the Jackson Hole Airport board for attending.
“I know people who say it’s the most important conference of the entire year,” Phillips said. “If you’re going to be in this game, then issues are important.”
In Sun Valley, officials have been pursuing a complete replacement of their airport, an endeavor that relies heavily on federal funding, said Rick Baird, the airport manager.
“Each airport pursues the funding of its capital improvement projects in a different way,” Baird said. “We spent a lot of time with the FAA in Seattle. ... There’s lots of ways to network and discuss your project and get it funded.”
In announcing the conference, the AAAE offered a special rate at the “all-suite” Fairmont Kea Lani. Moderate suites started at a convention rate of $249 a night, but attendees could upgrade to Fairmont Suites, partial ocean-view suites and ocean-view suites, the most expensive being $319 at the convention rate. Members all stayed in partial ocean-view suites, Bishop said.
Bills submitted to the airport for reimbursement show charges of $379 per suite each night for each airport board member, plus Bishop. Taxes brought each night’s cost to $429.82.
Without group rates, rooms in January start at $519 a night.
That put accommodations for each participant at $2,579 for the six nights.
“We didn’t book them fast enough to get those [convention] rates,” Bishop said. “We missed the window — they were sold out long before the Dec. 5 deadline.”
Attendees were allowed to bring spouses or significant others. According to airport records, four did: Bishop, Blann, Clay James and Andrea Riniker. The airport did not cover airfare, registration or meals for spouses.
Registration for the conference costs between $680 and $780 a person, Bishop said.
Each participant, except John Eastman, also submitted receipts for reimbursement for car rentals. They ranged from $116 for an Alamo rental to Lavar Riniker, husband of board member Riniker, to $739 for a Hertz rental by Debra Bishop, Director Bishop’s wife.
Blann’s car rental cost $495 and James’ was $172.
Board member Jim Waldrop’s Hertz rental cost $550, according to receipts provided by the airport. Waldrop arrived on the island on Friday, Jan. 4, two days before the start of the conference.
After the News&Guide obtained the car rental receipts, Bishop said he would repay the airport $92.40 for the time his rental was used beyond the period of the conference.
Each participant also received a $60 per diem. No participant turned in receipts seeking reimbursement for alcohol.
The conference began on a Sunday, when the agenda was filled with meetings of the AAAE board and committees. None of the Jackson participants is an AAAE board member. A reception that evening opened the conference, then the board adjourned to the hotel’s Nick’s Fishmarket, winner of Wine Spectator magazine’s “award of excellence” for its 2,000-bottle wine cellar.
“We took some people out to dinner that we were trying to make an impression on,” Bishop said.
At Nick’s, the board hosted an evening for 13 that cost $1,159. That included $138 for sashimi and entrees that ranged from $42 fillet mignon to $39 mahi-mahi to $42 kampachi. Cheesecake, creme brulee and bowls of strawberries rounded out the meal.
The cost for four spouses was subtracted, at $89 apiece, leaving the airport tab at $802.
The people the board was trying to impress were representatives of Jacobs Engineering and BridgeNet, Bishop said. Jacobs is an engineering contractor that’s worked at the airport, and BridgeNet is a consultant on noise and airspace issues.
Conference attendance is undertaken with “a much more thoughtful, deliberate economic process” than in the past, Bishop said.
“When I came here I thought we were a little bit excessive,” he said. “We did things like alcohol. ... A decade ago, they used to cover spouses.”
Flights for six totaled $7,293. Plane tickets ranged from $552 for Riniker, who flew in and out of Maui from Seattle, to $1,753 for Eastman, who wasn’t appointed to the board until mid-December.
Two board members, Riniker and James, extended their Hawaii stays beyond the Maui conference and flew to other islands. Riniker could not find flights back to Jackson from Maui for less than what she paid for her extended trip, so the airport paid her entire airfare, including the portion beyond the conference.
James is reimbursing the airport for a personal flight after the conference from Maui to the island of Hawaii, Bishop said Monday. He will reimburse the airport $89.10.
A receipt turned in to the airport for reimbursement by one board member noted that the flyer accrued more than 7,000 frequent flyer miles.
Jackson Hole Airport’s 2012-13 budget set aside $23,000 for the board to attend and another $4,600 for Bishop’s expenses there.
Town Councilor Jim Stanford wasn’t familiar with the trip but looked forward to learning more.
“An $18 million baggage claim, to me, that’s a weightier issue,” Stanford said. “I’m a little more focused on some of the big-picture stuff.
“As an elected official, I’m charged with oversight,” he said. “I am committed to keeping a little more watchful eye on this kind of thing.”
Teton County Commissioner Paul Vogelheim, the county’s liaison to the airport board, said the town and county are ratcheting up financial oversight.
“The electeds have jumped back in a little bit,” Vogelheim said. “We were a little too casual about it.”
Historically there has been “a lack of understanding” in the authority granted to the town and county by the airport’s “joint powers board agreement,” Vogelheim said.
“We need to dig into the details in this joint powers agreement,” he said. “I think there’s been an appetite to better understand some of these expenditures.”
“The airport has done a great job taking care of their own operating expenses without coming to the town or county,” Vogelheim said. “That’s unique. Lots of small airports have to be subsidized.
A small line item in the budget might never be subject to town or county scrutiny, Vogelheim said.
“Typically, in a situation like this, we don’t want to get into micromanaging,” the county commissioner said. “We have a good board up at the airport, and we’re not going to tell them how to run their business.”
As an elected official, Vogelheim said, he would “not personally be comfortable” participating in the airport board’s Hawaii trip.
“When we go to Cheyenne we go to the cheapest place to stay,” he said. “We try to carpool.
“I think the board members have the option to opt in or opt out of those trips,” Vogelheim said. “It’s up to their own discretion if they see value in going to Hawaii.”
Ed Cheramy, a member of the local tea party and critic of wasteful government spending, said he wasn’t familiar with the airport’s Maui trip and refrained from comment.
“They don’t get any taxpayer money, so they don’t generally appear on people’s radar screens,” Cheramy said. “They’re one of those organizations that it’d be interesting for someone to take a hard look at.”
Other board travel expenses
Here’s a look at the most expensive trips taken by other local government bodies and elected officials:
Teton County School Board — $2,297
All seven members of the Teton County School District No. 1 Board of Education traveled to Casper in November for the annual Wyoming School Boards Association Conference. That is the biggest event the whole school board attends together, Superintendent Pam Shea said.
With travel, lodging and a meal per diem, the school district paid $2,297 to send the board, District Finance Director Matt Rodosky said.
Teton County commissioners — $3,960
County commissioners’ travel budget for this fiscal year is $10,625. This budget includes the county administrator, human resources director and a few other employees in the administration department. They have spent $7,445 so far this year.
In the fall, several commissioners went to the county commissioners’ association meeting in Sheridan. They spent $3,960 on that trip.
During the legislative session, a few of them went to Cheyenne. That trip cost $1,310.
Ben Ellis took the most recent trip. He flew to Washington, D.C., to meet with representatives from several federal departments. His flight cost $1,000. He hasn’t filed receipts for other expenses.
All of this information was compiled by County Clerk Sherry Daigle.
Town of Jackson — $2,603
The town budgeted $10,000 this year for training, meetings and travel, which is about how much it spent last year.
The only time council members all meet together is the annual town retreat, which in 2012 was held at Spring Creek Ranch and cost $2,603. That included the five elected officials as well as 12 senior town staffers.
The bill for 2013 hasn’t been compiled yet.
Past retreats have generally been held nearby in places such as Alpine, Togwotee and the Wort Hotel. The retreat has also been held in council chambers.
In 2006 the retreat was in Sun Valley, Idaho. The town said such records are kept for only five years, so the cost of that meeting is not available.
The expected expenses for the joint Town Council/County Commission retreat held March 12 at the National Museum of Wildlife Art were about $100. Muffins made up the majority of the expenses. The retreat will include 10 elected officials and 20 to 25 staffers.
Individual council members sometimes make trips to conferences in places like Cheyenne and Denver. Those are most often for Wyoming Association of Municipalities and Smart Growth meetings.
Information was supplied by Assistant Town Manager Roxanne Robinson
St. John’s Medical Center
Board members do not go to any annual events together, but individual members have traveled with staff at times for specific tasks, such as to examine other hospitals.
There are no regularly scheduled conferences, trips or out-of-area retreats for members of St. John’s Medical Center’s board of trustees. Board members haven’t traveled for hospital business in the past year.
Information was supplied by hospital spokeswoman Karen Connelly.
American Association of Airport Executives
Here are highlights of the AAAE Maui conference condensed from a summary written by Airport Manager Ray Bishop.
• Discussed airport terminal baggage claim expansion plan with FAA Assistant Director Kate Lang.
• Lange reports sequestration can affect FAA reauthorization passed in 2012; airport should have confidence in starting its terminal remodel.
• Customs and immigration clearance cause serious delays, discouraging international tourism.
• Ancillary fees (for baggage) do not contribute to the Aviation Trust Fund, becoming a concern as more fees are outside the ticket tax.
• Redistricting creates a need to expand relationships beyond each airport’s delegation.
• Alaska Sen. Max Begich, head of general aviation caucus, discussed budget.
• Increasing capacity through technology a key issue in air traffic control and safety.
• NextGen air traffic control had many benefits not understood by the public.