Many factors led to airlines’ exit from Tahoe
Remember KC and the Sunshine Band? Johnny Bench? Platform shoes? How about convienient air travel to Lake Tahoe?
In the mid-1970s, when South Lake Tahoe was just beginning to flex its muscles economically, the local airport was experiencing a sort of “golden age.” The peak came in 1978, when three major commercial carriers accounted for 589,012 passengers coming and going from South Lake Tahoe. Combined with charter and general aviation traffic, that total swelled to 727,992.
“But when the federal government began airline deregulation in 1980, the airlines slowly began pulling out of small communities,” said South Lake Tahoe Airport assistant manager Janis Brand. “If a town or a city was not near a major airline hub, they grew disinterested. That’s what happened here.”
Air traffic at South Lake Tahoe dove steadily from 1980 on (about 160,000 passengers in 1988), until the big blow in 1991 when American Airlines discontinued service (partly due to litigation which limited the airport to only intrastate traffic).
“But mostly it was the airlines saying that it was not economically viable,” Brand said. “United Express pulled out in 1993, and Alpha Air (owned by TWA) did so in 1995 – the last year we had commercial service.”
Another big downer for commercial carriers were Tahoe’s stringent environmental regulations. In 1995, only four commercial flights per day were allowed into the South Lake Tahoe Airport due to noise and pollution concerns. Many of the big carriers finally decided it just wasn’t worth the trouble.
Many resort communities have been faced with similar dilemmas. Aspen, Colo., had been without direct air service for several years until community leaders decided to take matters into their own hands. Aspen went out and bought their own airline in 1990, taking over the bankrupt Lone Star Air company of Dallas and creating Aspen Mountain Air.
But it may be a good thing that South Lake Tahoe has not tried that. Aspen Mountain Air went bankrupt four years later.
“The problem that most resort communities face is that airlines want to provide year-round service. But Aspen is essentially a ski town, so there is (a large portion of time) when few people want to go there.
“Our community understands that,” Brand said. “We’ve gone to great lengths to promote ourselves as a year-round destination. Small communities are moving forward in that regard. And as Congress gets re-involved in this, I think you’re going to see maybe some more regulation and some greater interest by the airlines.”
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