Master plan to set a route for Lake Tahoe Airport


By Joann Eisenbrandt

The South Lake Tahoe City Council on Tuesday made two decisions regarding operations at the Lake Tahoe Airport: the potential outsourcing of airport management and the selection of an outside consultant to prepare an airport master plan.

In October 2012, the city put out request for proposals asking for submissions from airport management companies to manage and operate the Lake Tahoe Airport, with the goals of maximizing the uses and users of the airport, and lowering the airport’s operating costs. The airport is currently managed by city staff consisting of Airport Director Sherry Miller and four airport maintenance technicians.

It operates at an approximate annual deficit of $325,000. The idea of outsourcing airport management was suggested by former City Manager Tony O’Rourke in March 2011 as part of the city’s five-year plan to reduce personnel costs.

Lake Tahoe Airport’s future is tied to the next master plan. Photo/LTN

RFPs were received from two airport management companies, GCR Inc. from New Orleans and ABS Aviation headquartered in Atlanta. ABS manages operations at the Minden-Tahoe airport. The management fees in these proposals ranged from $300,000 to $500,000 annually.

These proposals were evaluated to see if they would create “a reduction in the negative cash flow.” In her staff report to the council, City Manager Nancy Kerry indicated that they would not and recommended the council reject both bids. The report noted, “The airport is managed well with a very minimal staff.”

Another reason for rejecting outsourcing of airport management at this time is that the city is about to undertake the preparation of a new airport master plan, a long-range planning document dealing with all aspects of airport operations, which Kerry indicated would be assessing a wide range of viable economic alternatives for managing the airport.

“The studies and analysis provided through the master planning process,” the staff report noted, “will provide guidance to conduct a more informed decision on this matter.”

Sherri Thompson, ABS Aviation COO, and airport manager at the Minden-Tahoe Airport noted that ABS wants to stay “engaged” in the process, is involved in the Tahoe community and wants to see the airport succeed. Michael Golden, owner of Mountain West Aviation, the airport’s fixed base operator, spoke, encouraging the council to increase utilization of the airport and set “tangible milestones for staff” such as ensuring that all hangars on the airport are leased out.

The council accepted the staff recommendation and rejected both bids for outsourcing airport management at this time. (Councilwoman Angela Swanson was not at the meeting.)

The council then considered the selection of an outside consultant to produce a new airport master plan. The last airport master plan was completed in 1992 as part of the Lake Tahoe Airport Master Plan Settlement Agreement. This agreement among the city, TRPA, California Attorney General’s Office and League to Save Lake Tahoe ended years of contentious disagreements and resultant lawsuits regarding appropriate noise restrictions, commercial flight levels and other operational issues at the airport. It put in place a complex set of requirements and restrictions regarding commercial service.

During the last 20 years, a cavalcade of commercial air carriers served the Lake Tahoe Airport under the terms of the settlement agreement, but none of them lasted. There has been no scheduled commercial service at the airport for more than a decade.

The city has continued to maintain the economic importance of the airport to the community, and has retained its FAA-issued Part 139 Air Operating Certificate, required of airports with scheduled commercial service.

There has been considerable discussion, with varying viewpoints, of what are the guidelines for commercial service now that the settlement agreement has expired. There are no simple answers. Some parts of the 1992 master plan and accompanying environmental impact report carry over. Which ones they are depends on who you ask. As City Manager Nancy Kerry noted at the council meeting, “We still operate under that umbrella,” but did not go into any specifics.

TRPA External Affairs Chief Julie Regan told Lake Tahoe News in June 2012 that, “If the current (master) plan expires before a new plan is in place, the status quo would continue, i.e., the city would continue to operate the airport as a general aviation facility until a new plan is developed and put in place.”

General aviation airports do not have scheduled commercial service.

Kerry indicated that an airport committee, comprised of herself, Miller and councilmembers Tom Davis and Swanson has been reviewing these issues over the last year, and determined that the city’s best course was to complete a new, comprehensive master plan now.

Under FAA guidelines, the city had to first put out a request for qualifications to be sure a qualified consultant was selected before any agreement regarding the costs of the master planning process could be entered into. An RFQ was put out by the city in August, and three responses were received: from Mead and Hunt Inc., C&S Companies and Vanir in Association with RBF Consulting. Staff recommended the city select Mead & Hunt, and enter into negotiations with them to prepare the airport master plan. This recommendation was based on the criteria that the firm had the necessary technical expertise, their staff had familiarity with this specific airport, local regulations and environmental issues, had experience preparing master plans at similar airports as well as past success in actively engaging local communities in the master planning process.

Once the consultant is selected, then the city, the consultant and the FAA enter into negotiations. The FAA will pay 90 percent of the costs, up to $318,000. The city must pay the remaining 10 percent. The city has already allocated its share in the 2012-13 budget. These amounts do not include preparation of the environmental documentation, which is estimated to be about $250,000. The city will conduct a cost benefit analysis to determine whether it is best to hire a consultant for this phase or hire one or two short-term in-house environmental planners.

The council accepted the staff recommendation and directed that the city enter into negotiations with Mead & Hunt. A formal agreement will come back to the council for approval at a later date.

Master plans historically can take up to two years to complete. Kerry noted that the city is hoping in this case to have an “expedited” master planning process.

The city has been actively seeking proposals from regional air carriers flying new generation, quieter aircraft to begin serving the Lake Tahoe Airport. Mayor Tom Davis added, “We might have an airline interested within a year or year and a half.”

If the new master plan were not completed at that point, then the city and Tahoe Regional Planning Agency officials would have to sit down and decide on what noise, flight levels and other requirements had to be satisfied in order for the city to get a TRPA permit. Kerry said the city would need to complete environmental documentation if they changed the “current use” of the airport by adding scheduled commercial service. She added that she believes TRPA would respond positively to a proposal from an airline with three to five flights a day using quieter aircraft that met the decibel levels established under the 1992 Settlement Agreement.






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Comments (31)
  1. Ryan Payne says - Posted: January 25, 2013

    SOLUTION: Turn the HOLE in to a world class OUTDOOR EVENT CENTER to create actual demand for the airport.

    What incentive do people currently have to fly
    In to South Lake Tahoe?

  2. tahoeadvocate says - Posted: January 25, 2013

    Since the HOLE is privately owned today, it isn’t up to the City to decide what goes there. Put together a business plan and present kit to the new owners. Show them what you mean and how it will make them money. You’ve got a good idea but is it finacially attractive to the owners of the land?

  3. Michael Thompson says - Posted: January 25, 2013

    I would be interested as too why there is so little traffic through The South Tahoe Air Port.
    The Truckee Air Port seems to be doing a booming Business.
    I remember flying into and out of South Tahoe to Pasadena multiple times as a kid.
    I met Jim Nabors on one of those quick easy flights as a kid.

  4. Steve says - Posted: January 25, 2013

    Sell the airport back to El Dorado County for the $1 it paid the county for it. Or seek funding from Douglas County, where a significant percentage of airport users are headed. Or give the keys back to the FAA and let them have it back.

    Regretfully, it is doubtful those other parties would be so gullible. City taxpayers should not be left having to subsidize this white elephant, and paying higher taxes and fees, instead of having their streets fixed.

  5. A.B. says - Posted: January 25, 2013

    That airport could be a real economic engine in this community. The problem is that the City of South Lake Tahoe has no ability to manage it. I recall a few years ago the airport seemed to be going in the right direction. Now, it’s a ghost town again. I for one like seeing planes flying into and out of the airport. That’s good economic activity for our local economy. Truckee seems to have a very busy airport with lots of businesses there. Businesses create jobs & generate tax revenue. Perhaps it seems too simple, but maybe the airport needs to focus on attracting more businesses to be there.

  6. A.B. says - Posted: January 25, 2013

    Steve, I read your comment. I think you are onto something there. The City should sell the airport to a party that is willing to work the place to turn a profit. The City has enough on their plate that it seems they can’t dedicate resources to do anything but maintain the status quo.

    Knowing the City, they won’t let go of the airport due to control. They want to maintain control, and that’s probably what it’s all about. But they are maintaining that control at the expense of the taxpayer, and doing a lousy job in the process.

  7. Old Long Skiis says - Posted: January 25, 2013

    Outside consultant?
    Hey, I’m an inside consultant! I’ve lived here all these years and live really close to the flight path to the airport.
    Fished that stretch of the upper truckee across from the runway many times. I know the owner of the bar and resturaunt from way back when. My advice? Leave the airport as it is. Try and encourage more pilots to use it but I really doubt we’ll get a commercial carrier.
    So pay me my consultation fee in cash please and I’ll be on my way.
    One last bit of “consulting recomendations”, use the parking lot for a rib cook off this summer. Lots of parking and may as well put all that empty space to use.
    That last idea will be free, no charge to the city. Thats the kind of generous firm that I’m in charge of is.
    Old Long Skiis, founder of Long Skiis consulting inc.

  8. John says - Posted: January 25, 2013

    Old Long Skiis, a couple points:
    1) Nothing remains the way it is. That is a universal truth. Even atoms change every second. Planning for change is therefore smart.

    2) Nobody cares how long something has been one way if it cannot exist that way into the future. IE: the airport cannot remain the same because of structural changes in the airline industry. Change is a fact.

    3) Consultants make sense when a project is outside the expertice of a business or government and it does not make sense for the business or governement to hire an employee with the expertice for a full time position.

    4) Your advice is worth exactly what you are going to be paid for it. There are FAA rules about what can happen there.

  9. sunriser2 says - Posted: January 25, 2013

    Move the visitor’s center there. Great access, parking and bathrooms. On the ride side of town and on the right side of the street.

    Maybe people can pay to park there long term and ride their bikes. Shuttle bus to Valhalla for weddings. How green would that be and make a buck or two off the bicyclists.

  10. John says - Posted: January 25, 2013

    Sunriser, if nobody parks there now and rides their bike to town, why would they pay to park their and ride to town?

  11. "HangsUpsFromWayBack" says - Posted: January 25, 2013

    The airport like a brain dead patient ,we keep the machines turned on at a price,please unplug the cost issues and all the headaches, spend the money saved on issues that actually have some importance to all the residents, not just a few air jocks that use it as a hobby.

  12. Old Long Skiis says - Posted: January 25, 2013

    I was just joking around about the airport consultation thing. For years a friend and I joked about becoming consultants. Looks like easy money to me and the city hires these guys ALOT. I saw one on TV yesterday making his pitch before the city council trying to get the job of looking for replacements for the finance director and the city attorney. He was wearing a nice suit and was well spoken. I’m sure he’ll get the gig.Take care, Old Long Skiis

  13. sunriser2 says - Posted: January 25, 2013

    OK lose the paid parking and keep the visitors center.

  14. John says - Posted: January 25, 2013

    Old Long Skiis, everything looks easy when you dont know what the job is. And yes I know its popular to demean work from professionals, but the fact is professionals are well paid because our work is complex. Few can do it, so we charge a lot. Sorry you didnt spend 8 years in college like a lot of us so you could charge for your time as well.

    But to get to brass tacks here, you whine a lot about the city changing, and how you want things to stay the same. Cant happen old long skiis. The economic environment has fundamentally changed and South Lake Tahoe either changes with it or continues to decline.

    So why point it out. I have kids. I would love for my kids to be able to go to college, and maybe have a chance of coming back to Tahoe to raise a family. That implies jobs are here. But, that is highly unlikely because there are a lot of people, agencies and rules that prevent redevopment and in so doing ensure the area continues to decline.

    It is frustrating because yesterday is yesterday old long skiis. Its gone, and right now tomorrow looks bleak without fundamental change. But, lets continue to talk down the professionals who may be able to talk about tomorrow.

  15. tahoedad says - Posted: January 25, 2013

    The City paid a consultant big bucks to prepare a report in 2007 filled with rosy scenarios about the “millions” that the airport would soon to be bringing to our community with the resumption of commercial airline service. Still waiting…..

    We’re always told that we’re close to getting commercial service, which seems to appease enough local taxpayers to continue spending hundreds of thousands per year for a handful of private jets.

    Even if we had commercial service (at the cost of more noise, air pollution, continuing taxpayer subsidies, etc.), the question is: for what/whose benefit?

    The only way to ascribe a potential economic benefit to the Lake Tahoe Airport is to figure out the number of travelers that would only come to Tahoe if they could fly directly into the Basin. The City did a survey in 1987 that asked passengers this question, and just 5% said they wouldn’t come here if they couldn’t fly right in. That was before Southwest was offering 13 flights per day from LA to the Reno-Tahoe Airport, with a billion dollar bypass making the drive/bus trip up to Tahoe faster. This is just one example of how the targeted regional market is being much better served than it was at that time.

    The reality is that service to small regional airports has been shrinking, and there are no signs that this trend is reversing. One report on this:

    With Reno-Tahoe Aiport growing, Minden-Tahoe Airport a short drive away, SAC Intl airport, high speed rail on the way, etc., what realistic niche is the Lake Tahoe Airport going to fill, for whose benefit, at what continuing cost to local taxpayers, at the expense of what other potential uses of those funds and that facility & land?

    I hope the Master Plan update takes a hard look at these and other questions.

  16. John says - Posted: January 25, 2013

    Tahoedad, there is a statement that was said about statistics but applies to most consulting engagements: If you agree with my assumptions, you cannot question my conclusions. That basically means I am going to get the math right, but the dirt is in the assumptions about growth, yield, sales…whatever.

    I think there is little doubt the last market analysis on the airport included unrealistic assumptions about commercial air service viability. Consultants dont invent those assumptions though, they are provided and approved by the client.

    I happen to agree with everything you wrote about the potential of commercial service to Tahoe. I cant see how it can work when Reno-Tahoe is having a hard time keeping flights.

  17. nature bats last says - Posted: January 25, 2013

    how about the users that use the airport pay for the use. Every single utility that I have has gone up in cost every year for as long as I can remember, its the cost of having the convenience of having resources. I remember not too long ago that there were people in San Jose who wrote letters to the Tribune saying “poor little ol me for having to maybe pay to fly into the LAke Tahoe Airport”. Cry me a river. They threatened that if they had to pay for the priveledge to fly into our local airpor tthey wouldnt come any more. That is who we are loosing money for at the airport. I personally think that the airport should just be used for emergencies (wildfires and medical) and let the tourists fly their private leer jets into reno or minden or truckee. Im tired of my tax dollars subsidising the “poor ol Jet owners that dont want to have to pay to use our airport”.

  18. 4-mer-usmc says - Posted: January 25, 2013


    Your frustration is showing. You’re a smart man and surely you’ve identified the capacity of many posters on this site. Good luck trying to influence some individuals to think comprehensively, via the use of fact, or to develop any vision for future prosperity.

    I completely agree with your remarks and concur that fundamental change is necessary to halt the continued decline of South Lake Tahoe and for this town to survive and prosper, but I’m not optimistic that the “keep things the same”, the “this is good enough”, and the “this is how we’ve always done it” mindset of many individuals will ever take place. Some long time residents are seriously resentful of what they consider “newcomers” to the area and of individuals having exposure to thought processes outside of their own realm and thus they are resistant to change. A microcosm of creating a success via vision, experience and likely outside exposure is the Lake Tahoe Bowl. That was a dilapidated, almost extinct business that someone with vision, experience and exposure to something outside of Tahoe turned around and has made a success and an attractive establishment. An example of how change can be good.

    I hope that South Lake Tahoe won’t be the equivalent of Nero fiddling while Rome burns.

  19. Hmmmm says - Posted: January 25, 2013

    I believe it’s Bobbi Thompson at the Midnen Airport. The Airport was poised to engage and invite commercial operators when the then management and support staff, (who were actually happy to be there) worked to get all of their 19 discrepancies down to 0 and then received the Outstanding Airport Award for the Western Pacific Region, out of 400 airport. Now the place has gone to #*@!

  20. A.B. says - Posted: January 25, 2013

    TahoeDad’s comments about the resumption of airline service into Tahoe are spot on.

    Nature Bats Last suggested that the users pay for every use – I think they already do. You might want to look into what the airport charges people to land there. And that’s probably part of the problem, if you don’t have enough people landing there, they’re not paying to use the place, and the airport then runs in the red.

  21. Old Long Skiis says - Posted: January 25, 2013

    A little harsh there on your criticism of me. Nope, no 8 years of college, just a high School education for this ol’ boy.
    I’m not cutting down professionals. I was trying to convey that consultants are hired far too often by the city.
    I think a lot of this hiring for our rapidly fleeing city staff could be done in house, thereby saving lots of taxpayer dollars.
    I’m not a whiner, as you stated, just a long time resident who’s makin’ a few suggestions.
    Sorry if I stepped on your professional toes but somebody has to dump your trash, plow your streets, bag your groceries and mow your lawn, paint your house and so many other things. Everybody has their own calling.
    I’ll be 60 this year, so maybe I’ll enroll in college so I can learn to be a consultant or a lobbyist. Old Long Skiis

  22. Murak says - Posted: January 25, 2013

    I am very upset that for so many years we are paying for the airport. What about our roads and basic services?

  23. copper says - Posted: January 25, 2013

    I agree with you, OLS. Although I moved away from SLT some years ago, I still live nearby and enjoy the environment there as often as I can.

    But y’all, (and “we” when I lived there) keep electing folks to run the city who’s primary concern is their own business interests sold as the public interest (does Tommy read this stuff?)rather than any kind of dedication to the community. I neither live there, nor vote there, but if I did anyone running on a “business” platform would not get my vote.

    The city might depend on business, but the ultimate political goal should be the well being of the citizens. Which almost no one on the City Council, nor their hirees, seem interested in.

  24. tahoeadvocate says - Posted: January 25, 2013

    I hope the recent appointees to the Airport Land Use Commission can innovate things which can be done at the airport to attract more flights and people. There are few services there for larger planes. The existing hangers had water problems and ruined an airplane a few years ago. The infrastructure need to be attractive to flyers or they’ll stay away.

  25. me too says - Posted: January 25, 2013

    tahoeadvocate. The existing “hangars” are probably 45% vacant. The one you speak of, A5, was “fixed” by taking out all of the rotting fiberglass insulation that was causing the condensation and mold that caused the problems for the newly appointed Airport Land Use Commission member who stores his aircraft on the ramp at Mountain West Aviation. Those improvements were put in place by a one B. K. who pursuaded the City to pay for all of those improvements. As for the other appointee, he’s been on the airport commission for so long that he should be able to help, but not likely. The city doesn’t want any growth at all with regards to the airport. Pilots love to come to TVL, and there are more landings and takeoff’s that all of you posters X 1,000 know of. Because the majority of them are light aircraft they’re not required to pay landing fees. And they shouldn’t. The FAA didn’t give the best airport Director in TVL’s history $7m to reconstruct runway 18/36 because he’s a “nice guy”, well that too, but they saw the strategic importance of TVL and he had a passion to take this airport to it’s full potential. It’s all pissed away. Everyone has the grandios fix it ticket, but you just have no clue. The bids that were recently cast aside as so many city employees were was the worst decision so far. But, just as I was aware of the idiot SRO’s reign at STHS when my daughter attended, nobody listened then and nobody will listen now. Unfortunately, the folks that will suffer are the people of the community and the flying public. You don’t deserve the good people that love that place. They are in the wind now. Poof.

  26. Mike says - Posted: January 25, 2013

    Instead of the City paying consultants (and I think they have done that way too many times), could staff visit and consult with similar airport operators and look at their finances to see if it is even viable to consider continuing airport operations if the future of the industry (small airports near larger ones) is so dire.Why keep operating at a loss when so many other City services are lacking? Maybe it is time to stop the bleeding…

  27. A.B. says - Posted: January 25, 2013

    I have been doing some research on this matter today. It seems fairly clear that there was a management change at the airport a few years ago. That change in management coincided with the downhill trajectory of the airport. Against those odds, there’s still some business out there.

    Maybe rejecting the bids of outside management was shortsighted by the city council. It seems that a fresh face with new ideas is warranted and might just solve the problem.

  28. me too says - Posted: January 27, 2013

    They don’t care about the airport or the users. It will continue to be a wasteland as long as current management is allowed to draw a paycheck. End of discussion.

  29. Concerned citizen says - Posted: January 27, 2013

    The airport serves an exclusive population. Don’t get caught up with the argument that it provides for safety in the event of a large fire. Helicopter landing zones and fueling stations can be set up in many areas around the South shore. And fixed wing aircraft can fly out of Minden. Demolish airport and build multi-sport complex to serve the entire community.

  30. dumbfounded says - Posted: January 28, 2013

    me too, excellent analysis.

    Concerned citizen, entirely too simple of an answer, the City has received millions of dollars from the FAA and by receiving that money, has promised to keep the Airport open.

  31. John says - Posted: January 28, 2013

    dumbfounded, that is probably true, but the period of performance is probably done. It doesnt last forever.