October 5, 2022 1018 PM
MARFA — As festival season kicks into high gear, photos of private planes crowding the runway at the Marfa Municipal Airport have started making the rounds on social media. As a steady stream of celebrities and influencers come through town, The Big Bend Sentinel wanted to know: how does all the private jet traffic affect the airport and its ride-or-die group of local pilots?
The county’s airport manager, Chase Snodgrass, has been keeping an eye on the trends for over 10 years. “It still just blows my mind how far away they come from and how large the planes are,” he said. “Austria, Switzerland, New Jersey, Hollywood, California, sometimes Chicago — there’s quite a bit of traffic.”
Snodgrass came to the Big Bend as a Border Patrol agent serving in Presidio, where he started helping out at the local airport. Gradually, his interest in aviation led him to serve the county’s runways and pilots. Both the Presidio and Marfa airports are owned by the county, and upkeep is typically provided by funding from federal grants — Snodgrass’ position entails identifying the county’s needs and coordinating communication between all the entities involved.
All the jet traffic puts wear and tear on the runways and taxiways at the airport. “The [Marfa] airport was not made to handle the weight or the or the number of large aircrafts that are there,” Snodgrass explained. The main runway was overhauled and thickened from 2 inches to 5 inches with a “hot mix,” which minimizes loose gravel that can damage airplanes.
Despite all the high-dollar paving work, Snodgrass felt the investments were worth it. The county sells fuel to visiting pilots, which can bring in a ton of cash on busy weekends. “It’s probably the only airport of its size in the state — maybe even the nation — that is financially self-sustaining,” he said. “Most small airports can make enough money to offset their costs, but they’re not completely self-sustaining the way we are in Marfa.”
Do all the visiting pilots respect the rules of the runway? At a Presidio County Commissioners Court meeting on August 24, Precinct 4 Commissioner Buddy Knight reported that there was a visiting plane stuck at the airport and that traffic had been diverted away from the main runway — ultimately, it took several days for the plane to be moved. “That was a fluke, for sure,” Snodgrass said. “We very seldom see something like that.”
There are about two dozen locals who fly out of the airport for fun — mostly to go sightseeing. “Big Bend is an awesome place to visit in an airplane, there’s a lot of cool stuff to see if you drive but even more to see if you fly,” Snodgrass said. “There’s only about 5% of it that’s accessible by roads, and we’ve been successful in increasing the amount of private aircraft tourism.”
Former Marfa Mayor Dan Dunlap is one of a few locals who enjoy taking in the view from the sky. Dunlap flies a single-engine Cessna — he used to travel with it, but now he mainly takes it for a quick out-and-back loop around the region. He started flying in and out of Marfa in 1996, and started noticing the tourism industry taking off in the early 2000s. “There’s been a tremendous increase in jet traffic, and of course that corresponds to the increase in tourism,” he said.
Dunlap has observed that most of the hangar space has been taken up by locals, but there are a few part-timers who keep a car at the airport and drive into town or out to the ranch on weekends. “They did add a lot of parking space,” he said. “We’ve reconstructed our runways, one of them we reconstructed twice. Those large planes are very hard on taxiways, especially in the summer — the tires really dig in.”
Despite all the expansion and the wear-and-tear, Dunlap echoed Snodgrass’ observation that the airport was doing just fine financially. “There was a time when our airport was not profitable, but with the advent of tourism, the Marfa airport really benefited,” he explained.
Dunlap also felt that all the outside traffic hadn’t affected the culture and camaraderie among local aviation enthusiasts. “We have a really nice community of pilots,” he said. “It hasn’t really changed our way of doing things — we really enjoy seeing all of the aircraft. It’s great to see our little airport doing so well.”