Air service critical to South Lake Tahoe economy |

Air service critical to South Lake Tahoe economy

Rick Chandler

There is a movie that was released in 1988 about two men – played by Joe Montanga and Don Ameche – who are involved in some legal trouble in Chicago. While waiting for their trial to begin, they decide to take a 48-hour gambling junket to Lake Tahoe.

So Montagna’s character calls O’Hare International, books a flight, and about three hours later the pair arrives at the Lake Tahoe Airport. They then hop into a limousine and arrive at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe minutes later.

The name of the movie is “Things Change.”

As South Lake Tahoe spruces itself up with several major development and beautification projects, it appears evident that civic leaders are serious about making their town the preeminent player in the West’s destination resort derby.

But there is one major sticking point to Tahoe’s plans for a new, improved self image. It’s a little thing called Getting There.

Imagine sitting in your home in San Francisco, jumping onto the Internet and planning a trip to Tahoe. Air travel, ski package, hotel reservation, all in one easy step. One can do just that for trips to resort destinations such as Vail, Colo., ( or Mammoth Mountain (

But getting to Tahoe is a little trickier. There has been no jet service in and out of South Lake Tahoe since 1995. To get here, one has to drive – or fly in through Reno. Both can be daunting prospects, especially during winter.

As Tahoe visitors weave through the mountains, tourists are flying comfortably into competing resort communities such as Vail and Telluride. And that could be trouble for the Lake Tahoe economy.

A significant step toward the return of commercial air service to South Lake Tahoe was taken on Tuesday when Tahoe Air Corp. officially filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation for a certificate authorizing daily nonstop jet service between the Lake Tahoe Airport, San Francisco and Los Angeles. According to Tahoe Air executive vice president Mark Sando, Tahoe Air could be providing service as early as June 1999.

But Tahoe Air has not yet filed for Federal Aviation Administration certification and must also raise about $8 million before it can begin service – two significant hurdles.

“There’s no doubt that air travel is critical to the economy of South Lake Tahoe,” said South Lake Tahoe Councilman Tom Davis, who is leading a lobbying effort to bring major carriers back to the local airport.

“The LTVA (Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority) is working on an aggressive aviation marketing plan. But on another front, (Lake Tahoe Airport) is in bad need of remodeling. We’re pursuing it.”

The link between commercial air travel and the Lake Tahoe economy is a strong one.

“Early analysis of the master plan indicated that if we had five commercial flights a day into South Lake Tahoe, it would generate $60 million (per year) in economic benefit,” said South Lake Tahoe City Manager Kerry Miller. “Over the past five months we have been actively meeting with major carriers to begin service here. We have a proposal on the table from America West, and we’re also talking with American Airlines, Continental, Frontier. And then there’s the Tahoe Air plan.”

America West would like to begin service as early as this coming summer, but there’s a snag in the form of a requested subsidy program. In other words, the airline wants a revenue guarantee.

“We’re reluctant to do that,” Miller said. “But the dialogue is continuing.”

But as talks continue, there’s trouble on the horizon. Competition from resort areas in Colorado and British Columbia are one thing, but Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort is also working on an air plan, and that hits a lot closer to home.

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