South Lake Tahoe City Council is dropping its exploration of commercial airline service at Lake Tahoe Airport as a new master plan continues to be developed for the general aviation facility.
C&S Companies is helping South Lake Tahoe prepare the master plan document, a planning tool the Federal Aviation Administration requires for airports it funds. The San Diego-based consulting firm found the city would face steep obstacles if it wanted to restore the commercial airline service that ended at the airport 14 years ago.
There have been many changes in the airline industry since 2000 and attracting carriers back to Lake Tahoe Airport would likely require large subsidies of up to $2 million per year. Commercial service also would require major infrastructure and facility upgrades to handle bigger aircraft and higher passenger volumes, some of which would be hard, if not impossible, to accommodate on the existing airfield because of environmental constraints, the firm found.
Restoring commercial service “appeared unlikely in the next 20 years. Not impossible, but unlikely,” Michael Hotaling, of C&S Companies, told the City Council on Tuesday.
Closing the airport as some people have advocated also would pose financial challenges. If authorized by FAA to pursue closure, South Lake Tahoe would have to pay back some portion of the $18 million in airport development grants and all of the $1.1 million in land acquisition grants it has accepted from FAA during the last 20 years.
Council members agreed the master plan study should move forward with a focus on how Lake Tahoe Airport can be maintained and developed as a general aviation facility. The airport sees about 24,000 general aviation flight operations per year, a tally that includes both landings and takeoffs.
Councilor Tom Davis said he wants to see South Lake Tahoe retain its federal Part 139 certification that allows unscheduled commercial airline service at the airport, in case new technologies or federal subsidies make restoring the service more feasible in the future.
The certification costs about $75,000 per year to maintain.
Council could also pursue a separate economic impact study for the airport to complement the master plan study. FAA is paying for 90 percent of the master plan’s $350,000 cost.
“City residents are paying for it when everyone else is using it,” City Manager Nancy Kerry said about the airport and community requests for an economic impact study. “They would like to know what they are getting for their value and what investing in it could look like.”
Development Services Director Hilary Roverud said officals also are working to ensure the city’s other planning documents are updated according to the findings of the master plan. That includes the Tahoe Valley Area Plan being created and an outdated Airport Comprehensive Land Use Plan, a zoning overlay that imposes various height, density and other building restrictions on some areas based on their proximity to the airport’s safety zones and approach paths.