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Council’s focus on airport timely for community

At its retreat this week, South Lake Tahoe City Council identified the airport as one of its three top priorities for the upcoming year.

That focus comes none too soon. In light of the numerous failed commercial airline ventures, it is time for council to look at the airport five to 10 years down the road. Council must decided how the airport can remain intact and still become a cost-effective venture. And that’s going to take some real brainstorming and community input.

Some recreation proponents have suggested forgetting the airport altogether and plowing the runways under to create more ball fields.



But eliminating the airport altogether is short-sighted. The airport is an expensive but necessary resource, if only for emergency transportation should Lake Tahoe become isolated by road closures or wildfire.

In addition, there is the possibility of building on the current general aviation uses, thus reducing some of the costs to taxpayers.



The problem is really commercial airlines. Now is simply not a good time to be in the airline business. With the number of recent airline crashes, the Federal Aviation Administration has clamped down on start-up airlines. Getting the green light from the FAA has become an expensive and highly political process.

But the bigger problem in attracting commercial airlines here has more to do with the size of the planes than the size of airlines’ bank accounts. Most people, unless they are business travelers, don’t like to fly the puddle jumpers generally associated with commuter express airlines. However, those are the types of planes that make financial sense for an area like Lake Tahoe.

Commercial jet airliners are expensive to fly, particularly when Lake Tahoe doesn’t generate the kind of ticket sales a more populated area does, nor will it ever generate that kind of volume.

What Lake Tahoe, like many other smaller markets, needs is an airplane that will hold 50 to 60 people. Unfortunately, those size planes are not being manufactured by most of the big airplane manufacturers. Big is better for the bottom line.

Without suitable-size planes, the possibilities for establishing permanent commercial air service are limited, unless the community ponys up subsidies. In other small mountain towns – like Vail, Mammoth and Jackson Hole – the community or major businesses have earmarked millions in airline subsidies to get air service going until passenger loads can make up the difference. It’s a costly and often long-term proposition, but one that can pay off in the long run.

However, the South Shore, particularly the casino core, seems to have little interest in such subsidies. With redevelopment and other upcoming projects, our local deep pockets are pretty much tapped out.

Faced with those realities, council has some tough issues to face. But with some creativity and community input, the airport can become a community center, not a financial drain on the city coffers.

Claire Fortier is the opinion page editor for the Tahoe Daily Tribune. She can be reached at (530) 541-3880, ext. 221 or by email at fortier@swiftnews.com


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