Will commercial service return to Lake Tahoe Airport? Not likely
The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s recently updated regional transportation plan is filled with hundreds of multi-modal transit projects involving buses, bikes, trails and more. But one South Shore asset was not included: the Lake Tahoe Airport.
Since the airport first opened in 1959, 12 airlines have provided scheduled passenger service to South Lake Tahoe. But with rising fuel costs, decreased demand and the implementation of stricter noise restrictions, one by one the airlines dropped off.
The Lake Tahoe Airport saw its last commercial flight in 2000, and in 2015, the South Lake Tahoe City Council unanimously agreed to give up its FAA certificate allowing commercial service.
“Economically, nobody could make it work,” said Mayor Austin Sass.
The airport is now used for private air travel, emergency services and as a City Hall — though this doesn’t necessarily mean the door is closed forever on commercial services.
At the Feb. 22 TRPA board meeting where the transportation plan was first presented, Sass asked if the airport was taken into consideration.
Nick Haven, TRPA’s long range planning and transportation division manager, noted that the city would first need to reestablish its FAA certificate for the airport to become a viable option.
“But I think as we look out with the completion of I-580, the proximity to the Reno airport, and the increased flights in Sacramento, that’s really where we’re seeing the volume of our visitors coming into,” said Haven.
“So, we’re focused on providing shuttle services there, and if that dynamic changes with the commercial service at the South Lake Tahoe airport, then we would definitely take that into consideration.”
So what exactly would it take to reopen Lake Tahoe Airport to commercial service? A whole lot of funding.
“The airport terminal has been completely remodeled to be a city hall and restaurant, so the airport would need to remodeled back to an airport terminal, which would be very expensive,” said airport manager Mark Gibbs. “We would need to meet the TSA requirements, we would need baggage claim, a hold room, ticketing. We don’t have any of that anymore.”
The city would also need to hire more staff, acquire airport-specific firefighting equipment and reopen the air traffic tower.
“What I know about the airline industry — and I came from another small airport that was fighting to hold onto its airline service — is that the likelihood of one coming to this market and saying we want to start service here is probably zero,” said Gibbs.
But it is still possible for a small regional air carrier — which is exempt from TSA requirements — to operate out of the airport.
“If we were to have any scheduled service whatsoever, it would probably look at lot like Truckee Tahoe Airport,” noted Gibbs.
Surf Air flies to 12 destinations across California, including Truckee, and employs a membership program, which costs $1,950 per month for unlimited flights.
“They have to have nine seats or less. These are really small propeller aircrafts,” said Gibbs.
Other resort markets, particularly Colorado, have turned to airline guarantee programs, which promise certain revenue per flight and make up the difference if this number is not met. In Telluride, local lodging and restaurant taxes fund the program.
“You used to be able to get from South Lake Tahoe to San Diego, L.A. and San Francisco in under an hour,” recalled Sass. “Those of us that remember that loved that service.”
But for now, that luxury is not in the cards.