Lake Tahoe Airport’s heyday is long past, but facility may soar again
In its heyday, enplanements at the Lake Tahoe Airport reached an all-time high – in 1978, for example, 294,188 passengers flew out of the airport on scheduled airlines. From 1959 to 2006, 12 airlines provided scheduled passenger service to the South Shore of Lake Tahoe.
According to Rick Jenkins, current airport director, El Dorado County constructed the airport on land purchased from the Barton family with financial assistance from the FAA. The county broke ground for the airport in 1958.
“The facility opened Aug. 1, 1959, with a 5,900-foot runway and was the only airport along the 750 miles of the High Sierra capable of supporting private and military aircraft and scheduled air carriers,” Jenkins said. “The runway was extended to 8,544 feet in late 1962.”
The first airline flight flew from the airport during the dedication ceremony: Kilfoyle Air Travel Service, known as KATS, flew a Martin 404 carrying 42 passengers on an hourlong flight that returned to the new airport. The first shipment of air freight into the Lake Tahoe Airport also came during the opening ceremonies when the Wells Products company of San Leandro, Calif., flew in an emergency order of 10,000 rivets for slot machines at Harrah’s Casino.
One of the Tribune’s first issues in 1958 featured a photo and story of the airport’s groundbreaking ceremonies, in which a flying plane literally cut a ribbon strung across the runway.
Tahoe Air Lines Inc. introduced flights out of the airport in a four-engine amphibian McKinnon Goose in August 1959, and air ambulances started flying out of the airport in September. The airport terminal opened in 1969, and many airlines operated at the airport in the 1970s and 1980s.
“The airport was a hub of activity, bringing in guests not only for longer stays, but providing a base for emergency needs,” said Del Laine, who was mayor of South Lake Tahoe in 1977-78.
But concerns regarding the effects of aircraft operations at Lake Tahoe Airport during the 1980s resulted in a legal settlement in 1982 that established strict noise and access restrictions at the airport. These restrictions discouraged air carriers from operating there. As air service decreased, less funding was available for airport maintenance, and the infrastructure deteriorated. The city of South Lake Tahoe purchased the airport from El Dorado County in 1983 for $1.
The last scheduled air service at the airport was operated by Tahoe Air and Allegiant Air in 1999 and 2000, and the air traffic tower was closed in October 2004 because of lack of funding.
In June 2007, the city council approved a vision statement for the airport stating that it will be a world-class general aviation facility and the city retains the right for commercial airline service. The statement further notes the airport will improve the local economy, reduce traffic congestion, continue to enhance public safety and continue to utilize green technology and best-management practices.
Despite its downturn as a commercial hub, the airport recently proved pivotal in the fight against the Angora fire.
“During the week of June 24, 2007, 27 firefighting aircraft operated from the airport during the Angora fire, saving property and possibly lives,” Jenkins said. “A joint Emergency Operations Center was operated in the airport terminal building.”
In September 2007, five agricultural aircraft flew 6,300 aerial hydromulch flight operations from the airport to stabilize soil in the Angora fire site.
“The recent benefits to the community during and after the fire point to the value of the airport during emergencies. A recent economic impact study of the airport highlights the economic value,” Jenkins said. “Improvements in the runway, aircraft parking ramp and other airport improvements in the coming years will help the airport realize the goals of the city’s Airport Vision Statement.
“My expectation is when scheduled service resumes, it will be with smaller, quieter regional jets rather than 737s and other similar-sized aircraft. There will be less impact to the environment while still serving the economic, transportation and emergency needs of the community.”
1959: Lake Tahoe Airport officially opens.
Early 1960s to mid-1970s: Holiday Airlines and Hughes Air West provide majority of scheduled air service.
1974: Hughes Air West stops air service to Lake Tahoe Airport.
1975: Holiday Airlines stops air service to Lake Tahoe Airport.
1975: Air California (AirCal) and Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) begin scheduled air service to Lake Tahoe Airport.
1978: Passenger enplanements reach an all-time high of 294,188 passengers, up from 39,433 passengers in 1974.
1979: California Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (CTRPA) contests PSA’s and AirCal’s request to use jet aircraft to serve Lake Tahoe Airport.
1979: As a result of CTRPA’s contention to using jet aircraft, and other factors, PSA and AirCal terminate scheduled air service to Lake Tahoe Airport.
1979: Passenger enplanements drop by 45 percent to 169,683 as a result of PSA and AirCal terminating service.
1980: Passenger enplanements drop another 58 percent to 68,729 passengers.
1979 to 1982: Aspen Airways provides scheduled air service Lake Tahoe Airport.
1981 to 1982: Golden West Airlines provides scheduled air service to Lake Tahoe Airport.
1982 to 1986: Pacific Coast Airlines provides commuter air service to Lake Tahoe Airport.
1982: Passenger enplanements reach an all-time low of 37,553 passengers.
1983: AirCal reinstates scheduled air service to Lake Tahoe using jet aircraft.
1984: Passenger enplanements increase to 91,422 passengers.
1986: Wings West/American Eagle commences scheduled air service to Lake Tahoe Airport.
1987: AirCal becomes part of American Airlines.
1991: American Airlines terminates air service to Lake Tahoe Airport in anticipation of the approval of the Master Plan Settlement Agreement; American Eagle continues.
1992: The Master Plan Settlement Agreement is adopted by the TRPA.
1992: The Lake Tahoe Airport Commercial Airline Access Plan is adopted by the FAA.
1992 to 1993: United Express and Alpha Air commence service to Lake Tahoe Airport.
1994: In an effort to re-establish scheduled jet service at Lake Tahoe Airport, the Tahoe Airline Guarantee Corporation (TAG) agrees to provide a direct subsidy to Reno Air; American Eagle and United Express terminate commuter service.
1994: Reno Air begins subsidized scheduled air service to Lake Tahoe Airport.
1995: TAG ceases subsidy; Reno Air terminates scheduled air service; Alpha Air/Trans World Express ceases operations; Sierra Expressway commences scheduled commuter service.
1996: Sierra Expressway ceases operations.
1997 to 1998: There is no scheduled air service to Lake Tahoe Airport.
1999: Allegiant Air and Tahoe Air begin scheduled air service to Lake Tahoe and enplane 11,950 passengers.
2000: Allegiant Air re-establishes scheduled jet service to Lake Tahoe; ceases that November.
2001: No scheduled air service at Lake Tahoe Airport.
– Provided by the city of South Lake Tahoe