As I wrote about earlier this month, in late June Jackson Hole’s summer of 2020 turned from calm to chaotic.
As measured by traffic through Yellowstone’s South Gate (at Jackson Hole’s north end), tourism to the Tetons was sporadic through June 25– some days were busier than in 2019; others slower.
Since June 26, though, daily traffic through Yellowstone’s South Gate topped 2019’s numbers essentially every day. The pattern still holds.
Graph 1 shows the running totals for number of vehicles passing through Yellowstone’s South Gate between July 15 and September 16. During those two months, traffic going into Yellowstone from Jackson Hole was up an astonishing 41 percent.
(Note: I used the July 15 – September 16 dates because they match up with the best reliable data I have from the Jackson Hole Airport.)
In contrast, the combined traffic counts at Yellowstone’s four other gates – from West Yellowstone MT, Gardiner MT, Cooke City MT, and Cody WY – were up just 13 percent (Graph 2).
My big, self-obvious conclusion: if it felt frantic this summer, it’s because it was frantic.
Things were very different at the airport. At least at first blush.
I serve as the liaison between the Jackson Town Council and the two local air travel-related boards: the Jackson Hole Airport board and Jackson Hole Air Improvement Resources, which runs our local airline subsidy efforts. One thing I’ve learned in that role is that, like other US airports, the Jackson Hole Airport has no ability to regulate who flies into or out of the airport – locally, we can control only what occurs on the ground.
Another thing I’ve learned is how profoundly disruptive COVID-19 has been for America’s airlines. As a result, their schedule this past summer was constantly changing in response to the demand for flights, or lack thereof.
Locally, that meant the Jackson Hole Airport had 22 percent fewer commercial flights over the past couple of months than during the same period in 2019 (Graph 3)
(Note: To make the sometimes-scattered airport activity data easier to understand, Graphs 3-6 use 7 day averages; e.g., the figure for July 15 is the average number of flights each day between July 9 and July 15.)
But that’s just the commercial flights. As Graph 4 shows, since mid-July, private jet traffic into the Jackson Hole Airport was up by one-third over 2019’s level. In fact, for each of the 64 days between July 15 – September 16, the 7 day average number of flights was higher in 2020 than in 2019.
And of course the private jet traffic during that 64 day stretch in 2019 was busier than in 2018. Which was busier than in 2017. Which was busier than in 2016…
Why focus on air traffic? For a few reasons.
One is that air traffic is a good indicator of how busy Jackson Hole is. Not the best indicator, perhaps, but not a bad one either.
Another reason is that private jet traffic is arguably a very good indicator of how attractive Jackson Hole is becoming to those wealthy enough to afford private jet travel. (If you have a spare 1 minute and 20 seconds here’s a great satiric take on this phenomenon: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bmrUZCih-aQ)
The third and most important reason, though, is the noise of it all.
My understanding of Jackson Hole has been greatly enriched by getting to know Bernie Krauss, a bio-acoustician who has been seminal in developing the concept of soundscape ecology; i.e., “the study of the acoustic relationships between living organisms, human and other, and their environment.”
What Bernie helped me understand is how significantly sound can affect how we experience the world. (Follow this link to learn more about Bernie’s work: http://www.wildsanctuary.com/index.html)
In this auditory context, two realities shape the relationship between Jackson Hole and its airport.
One is that the Jackson Hole Airport is the only commercial airport in a national park.
The other is that the shape of the Jackson Hole valley dictates flight patterns. In particular, there are only two directions air traffic can go: over the park, or over the Town of Jackson. As a result, increased air traffic means increased numbers of planes coming in at low altitude – noisy altitude – over the town or park.
Which, to understate the case, is annoying for anyone under a flight path. Especially this year, when COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on everyone’s peace of mind.
But are this year’s airplane-related noise concerns actually grounded in fact? Or are they just a symptom of our COVID-stressed times? To find out, I did a bit of simple math.
Step 1 was to assume the airport was active 14 hours/day, from 7 am to 9 pm. Step 2 was to divide the resulting 840 minutes by the number of flights per day to see how frequently planes were using the Jackson Hole Airport.
Graph 5 divides the 840 minutes by the total number of planes using the airport each day: commercial and private, jets and propeller-driven. Last year, between July 15 and September 16 there were an average of 115 such flights/day, meaning a plane was using the Jackson Hole Airport every 7.3 minutes. This year, the numbers were 122 flights/day and 6.9 minutes – a slight increase in frequency, but not a major one.
Most striking was that far more planes used the Jackson Hole Airport during August 2020 than in 2019. As a result, for essentially every day in August 2020, planes came into and out of the airport much more frequently than they did in the typical day in 2019. Chalk one up for busy-ness.
But that weren’t nothin’ compared to 2020’s private jet traffic.
As Graph 6 shows, using the 7 day averages, between July 15 and September 16 2020 there was a private jet over Jackson Hole every 12 minutes: 5 times per hour, 14 hours per day. This was 26 percent more frequent than in 2019.
Speaking more directly to the annoyance factor, on nearly three-quarters of the days in 2020, there were more private jets using the Jackson Hole Airport than on the busiest day in 2019.
Switching gears slightly, this past Monday my Jackson Town Council colleagues and I granted the Snow King ski area a new long-term lease to use town-owned land in Phil Baux Park. This will allow Snow King to build a new gondola from town property at the base of the mountain to its summit.
I supported the measure, but before I voted I offered the following remarks:
“For many years, now, Jackson Hole has increasingly attracted those who seem eager to exploit the community, taking from it far more than they give back. The COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated this process, attracting people eager to take advantage of all our region has to offer without any sense of how to give back, or even that they should give back.”
Whether or not it’s fair, there is no more visible indicator of the wealth pouring into Jackson Hole than private jets. The airport numbers confirm that which any sentient observer has sensed, namely that private jet activity was way up this summer.
In future newsletters, I’ll explore the implications of all this new wealth. For now, the hatch of private jets over the Tetons is a many-times-per-hour reminder that Jackson Hole is in a state of rapid growth, change, and gentrification.