Remmbering the Tahoe Airport’s heyday
Much like bell-bottoms, go-go dancers and the illustrious Twiggy, Lake Tahoe Airport enjoyed its heyday in the 1970’s.
Nearly 600,000 passengers flew into Tahoe in 1978 and subsequent years during that decade matched those numbers closely.
But much has changed since that time. The airport – crippled by litigation, airline deregulation, deals gone sour and a rough economy – has suffered severe losses both in business and credibility.
Despite its tumultuous history and rumors to the contrary, the airport remains open and fully functional for both general and commercial aviation. City representatives are in negotiations with commercial carrier America West and start-ups Winair, Frontier Air, Allegiant Air and Tahoe Air.
City Manager Kerry Miller said the airport future looks brighter than it has in a long time, and that through all the turmoil, the city has learned many a valuable lesson.
“Through our recent negotiations we’ve learned that we have a story to tell that the aviation world does not know,” Miller said. “They thought there were so many restrictions here, that the community did not want commercial air service and that carriers lost money here. But they were deeply impressed once they realized how good an opportunity Tahoe is. They re-energized us.”
And energy is exactly what it must take to keep the airport going through all its ups and downs.
First opened by El Dorado County in 1959, the airport became the city’s responsibility in 1983. Concurrently, airline deregulation and subsequent airline mergers turned Lake Tahoe into a low-profit, less-than-desirable destination for major carriers.
“Destinations like Lake Tahoe just became little pieces, unable to compete with other resorts,” said Janis Brand, airport administrative assistant.
Some say airline deregulation was when the airport lost its last chance at becoming a viable commercial service destination.
“Before deregulation, major airlines had to provide service to airports like ours, they had to by law,” said Council Member Bill Crawford. “But after that, it just was not profitable for them to fly here. If it were, they’d be here today wouldn’t they?”
But according to Miller, Lake Tahoe Airport is not alone in its struggle to secure commercial service.
“Since 1990, nearly 240 airports have lost commercial air service due to corporate buy-outs,” Miller said. “We are not alone, in fact, we are caught up in a major industry trend.”
In 1992, the city adopted a 20-year Airport Master Plan which included incremental increases in passenger loads and average daily flight arrivals and departures, and the assumption that all environmental demands would be continually met.
“I feel we shot ourselves in the foot with the Master Plan because commercial carriers said they don’t want to serve airports with restricted service,” Miller said. “But our dilemma is that if we have no major server, then there is no need for other major servers to compete. Once you lose it, it’s extremely hard to get it back.”
The last commercial airline to attempt Tahoe service was Reno Air. In a 1994 independent study, the Lake Tahoe Visitor’s Authority determined that it was possible to get service if it was paid for. In other words, major business owners would have to pool money and pay for every empty seat on scheduled flights. With this subsidy program in place, Reno Air began service in 1994 – and pulled out one year later.
“Our (passenger) numbers rivaled those of other similar destinations, we confirmed that service to Tahoe is a viable thing,” Brand said. “But not in winter. So Reno Air consumed our $1 million local subsidy within two months and pulled out, even though we had an 84.1 percent passenger load in the summer.”
From there, the city faced the challenge of convincing the community that commercial service was viable and would provide a valuable asset to the tourism industry. But according to Miller, it was -and remains- an uphill battle.
“Reno Air was touted in the community as our last chance. So everyone decided, that’s it,” Miller said. “We’ve learned a tremendous amount, including the fact that future involvement needs to be long-term.”
Along with the current negotiations with commercial carriers, Miller said the community will have to participate in creating a viable marketing plan to ensure continued success and income from commercial service.
“The airline business is committed to opportunity cost,” Miller said. “It’s not that they can’t make money from Tahoe, they’ll just make more money elsewhere. So it really depends on how the community can contribute to the equation.”
Along with the commercial service negotiations, the city is continuing its efforts to maintain weather and air traffic control service, as well as focussing on upgrading existing general aviation services.
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