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New airline planned for South Shore

Jenifer Ragland

A new, locally based air service is making an attempt to breathe life back into the Lake Tahoe Airport.

It is a feat many have tried, of which few have been successful.

But Mark Sando, founder and on-site project manager of Tahoe Air, Corp., said this time will be different.

“Having been here for more than 20 years, I recognize how much we need a working airport, and this is an air service that is committed to the area,” he said. “There is a great market here, but it takes someone committed to making that happen.”

Sando said he hopes to have Tahoe Air off the ground by the summer of next year. The next step, which Sando said the company is in the midst of, is securing investors who are willing to put forth the hundreds of millions of dollars needed for a start-up airline. After that, Tahoe Air will seek its certification from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Since the company was incorporated late last year, Sando and the management team – including several long-time industry veterans – have been working hard to get organized and have a plan in place before going public with their endeavor.

Part of the reasoning behind that strategy stems from the high level of skepticism and hopelessness in the South Shore community about commercial air service and the Lake Tahoe Airport. Sando said he thinks lack of faith is primarily the result of past efforts that were full of energy and hope, but that ultimately failed.

“When Liz Boone announced in the spring for the third time that planned jet service would be delayed, it pushed me to some action,” Sando said. “I began to think, what can we do locally to get this going? If we continue to wait for people from outside of Lake Tahoe to make this happen, maybe it’s never going to happen.”

In talking with a few well-connected people in the industry, Sando said he was able to find that there was a serious interest in helping the passionate, locally driven campaign.

The idea is for Tahoe Air to be a California-targeted, low-fare, passenger airline with South Lake Tahoe as its niche market. The company plans to initially serve the San Francisco International and the Los Angeles airports with six daily non-stop flights, Sando said.

Over the next two years, service will be expanded to Seattle, San Diego, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Portland, with secondary airports like Oakland, San Jose, Burbank and Orange County also utilized.

The company will start out with two 95-130 passenger jet aircraft. Reservations will available through an 800 number, travel agents, local ticket counters and the Internet.

Sando said fares will be within $10 to $15 one-way of comparable Reno Air fares, in order to capitalize on both the incoming tourist and the outgoing local markets.

“We are really looking at the Tahoe outbound market, which is one of the things that has never been developed in this area,” Sando said. “The pricing at Lake Tahoe has always been so high that the local folks couldn’t use the airport.”

He pointed out that the difference in price of Tahoe Air flights would still be cheaper than traveling to and parking in Reno, plus a few hours of saved time.

The company has been and will continue working with local resorts, the casino corridor, ski areas and the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority to pool marketing efforts.

The airport’s most recent attempt at providing reliable scheduled air service was with Reno Air, and the experience likely leaves a bad taste in the mouths of most Tahoe residents and business owners.

But Sando stressed that Tahoe Air’s approach is different. He said he believes Reno Air was more concerned with preventing competition in its market than serving Lake Tahoe residents and visitors. Without the commitment and without the passion, it just won’t work.

“This is an entirely different approach,” Sando said. “We understand exactly what we need in Lake Tahoe and we are designing our entire strategy based on that.”

The company will not be asking for empty-seat subsidies, Sando said, but instead hopes to involve the community in getting the effort started.

One idea is to have ticket pre-sales for both the general public and the business community, tentatively called “Buy a seat, help your city.” The sale would offer $100 roundtrips for any Tahoe Air flight and buy three, get-one-free deals to help mitigate low passenger loads in the start-up months, Sando said.

Similarly, businesses that may donate $250,000 to the effort would then get 2,500 tickets in return to use for their own promotional campaigns.

The Tahoe Air project is being spearheaded by Sando and his Stateline-area travel agency, A & M Travel, Corp. He and others have already put money out of their own pockets toward getting the new airline moving.

Now, he said it is time to see if the community is willing to give it a try.

“Everyone has got to be involved. We tried to step out there and take risks to see if we could get this ball rolling, and now the only way it will be successful is if everyone steps in and does a part,” Sando said. “This isn’t part of our plan, this is the center of our plan. I really feel that Tahoe Air and the Lake Tahoe Airport could be one of those Cinderella stories – where everyone gave up hope and then something wonderful happened.”

Janis Brand, airport spokeswoman, said she has supported the effort since it began, and has high hopes for its success.

“I’m really feeling like they know what they’re doing – they’re taking it very slowly and very professionally,” she said. “I would just love to have a Tahoe airline – someone who wants to stay here and serve Lake Tahoe.”

Brand said she does not think it will be difficult for the start-up airline to get FAA certification once the financing is in place.

If the airport had an operating commercial airline, revenue would be generated by landing fees, leased building space and passenger facility charges. In addition, it is estimated that the city would receive about $1.2 million in Transient Occupancy Tax and sales tax for every 100,000 passengers that come in.


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