Airline looks at Tahoe among other markets
The city someday may open the gate to a commercial air carrier like Horizon Air, but a lot of work would need to be done and support given to the Lake Tahoe Airport.
Since Allegiant Airlines left the South Shore aviation facility five years ago, the idea of bringing another carrier back has always existed. It’s even listed among the city’s strategic goals, despite the local government’s plan to occupy the airport as a city administrative building by May.
That aside, a lot has happened in the industry and to Tahoe.
For one, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have transformed the world of flying.
The airport needs to make modifications to meet the federal government’s security standards. Grant funds are available for these improvements, and space would need to be identified. Airports are having to corral passengers coming and going into isolation stations. Although the carousel was removed to make room for the remodeling effort, it is not mandatory for small airports to have them.
Councilman Mike Weber, who serves on the city’s Airport Commission and Advisory Board and ran a restaurant there for three years, also noted the runway needs more asphalt spot repairs through the $360,000 federal grant it received last year. Some cracks were 2 inches wide.
Best management practices would also need to be installed. The airport tower may go back into service, but it’s not a requirement. The tower was closed nearly two years ago because the city could not justify the added expense during a budget crunch.
Repaving the entire 8,400-foot runway is also a recommended option at this point, Weber added. These jobs fall in a five-to-six-year schedule just as city streets are slated for attention. He estimated the project at about $19 million – with 95 percent of the expense picked up by the federal government, nearly 5 percent from the state and less than a half percent match from the city.
“That $60,000 investment is worth making,” Weber said Wednesday.
In addition, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency would need to approve the development of commercial air service. Noise standards spun out of a four-party 1992 legal settlement agreement need updating as part of the airport master plan. Plus, an environmental analysis on the Upper Truckee River’s flow needs to be addressed.
“There’s nothing that bans commercial service in our plan. We’re not putting a line in the sand, but the channeling of the river has changed,” TRPA spokeswoman Julie Regan said. “We need to work together. We want to be part of the solution.”
Enter Horizon Air
Tahoe is not out of the picture for Horizon Air, a subsidiary of Alaska Airlines, based in Seattle. The airline may explore running a route to and from South Lake Tahoe, but it’s looking at other markets as well.
“They’ve been interested in us for four years,” Weber said. “The bottom line is, there’s only renewed interest because there’s an abundance of regional jets as well as (Horizon’s) turbo props.”
Horizon Vice President of Marketing Patrick Zachwieja reported his company has bought 18 Bombardier Q-400s, quiet, 74-seat planes that represent the wave of the future among low-cost carriers.
“We think we have homes for these airplanes, but we’re looking at all opportunities,” he said.
And it wants to add another 14 to the company’s 66-aircraft fleet. Where they’ll go remains a question the airline constantly evaluates.
He said the company is undeterred by other airline pullouts from the lake market, since his planes seat more passengers and are more fuel efficient.
Horizon is familiar with this market. It contacted the city informally – with conditions.
Zachwieja said the company will provide a letter of support if the city applies for a small community air service grant to make improvements due by April 7. Federal Aviation Administration officials are exploring the probability.
“Then, we’ll think about it. This is not a commitment,” he said.
Instead of cash subsidies, Horizon is seeking tourism promotional support.
Fly to ski
To that, Blaise Carrig – Heavenly Mountain Resort’s chief operating officer and a Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority board member – said he would “definitely maybe” support that idea in the ski resort’s advertising materials.
“I think a lot of things have to happen, and if it’s a good market for us,” he said. Carrig’s interest level went up with the prospect of Los Angeles.
And TRPA’s transportation study revealed that 61 percent of travelers surveyed said they would support commercial air service to Tahoe.
“There’s been a trend toward cooperative marketing. We support marketing in flight packages. We do that now with Atlanta and Delta,” he said of two airlines that fly out of the Reno/Tahoe International Airport. The Reno airport has resumed the same number of flights as it had before Sept. 11.
To Wally Johnson, the Reno airport is close enough. In an informal poll outside the Al Tahoe Post Office, he’s only one in 10 people who was unsure about supporting commercial air service to the Lake Tahoe Airport if the city didn’t have to subsidize the effort with cash. Seven in 10 residents said it would be a good idea.
“I think it should be utilized. If you don’t give the town a shot in the arm, it’ll just die,” Mary Bishop said.
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