South Lake Tahoe (TVL)Tower Closes

It is now October 6th, 2004, and as of Friday, October 1st, we no longer have a functioning airport tower or an Airport Manager. First a little background, although I may have be off on a few details, the general picture remains. As most of you know, our airport has been suffering from a total lack of community interest, reflected through your elected officials. This airport has functioned before without a tower and will continue to this time. Following the airport opening in 1958 there was a crash of a Paradise Airlines L-188 in March of 1964. All 85 people on board were killed and public support for an air traffic control tower with reliable weather reporting was high. In 1972 the commercial ramp/terminal building was completed. At its peak this facility had 7 full-time controllers with a supervisor, and 17 maintenance personnel with an airport manager and secretary, restaurant, FBO, car rental, flight lessons, scenic flights and of course airline competition. South Lake Tahoe airport covers 356 acres, the equivalent pavement of 46 miles of roads. It represents some large percentage of the City of South Lake Tahoe land holdings and according to best estimates, even in today’s environment, contributes just over $21 million to the south basin economy.

We all know how things have changed at the airport. The one thing that has not changed is the acreage. We now have two maintenance employees, one secretary and overview from an empty control tower. With a perpetually broken gate and no one watching, all I can say is make sure your hangar is locked and watch for trucks when you taxi out, including on the runway.

The city manager has elected to create a new job; airport manager/solid waste manager/special projects manager. Which one of those titles will our new city employee be an expert in? Three guesses. My guess is that airport management will not be high on the list since they just booted our current manager. The new job pays 65% of what they were paying Mike.

A Few points before I finish:
The city asked the FAA if they could close the tower temporarily, to which the FAA reported yes. If you think the city will ever decide to divert $300,000 ‘found money’ to reopen the tower then please leave the word temporary in the former sentence. I don’t foresee it ever opening again but would love to be wrong. The city council gave the tower employees one weeks notice and closed the facility for budgetary reasons over the objections of users for increased safety considerations.

Although many of you will have differences with any management of the airport, I doubt we will be better served by no management. Mike was forced out of his job with his final severance meeting to finalize the terms the day before he was asked to leave. The reason you were left out of the process is there wasn’t one. The city went through this projected change while Mike was in Pennsylvania dealing with family issues. It was not left to open public debate. Mike worked hard to balance the airport budget despite the city’s indifference. The city expects a profit from the airport but prevents it from generating such. They were able, through Mike’s efforts to get close to 95% of the money available to resurface the commercial ramp and runway but had to return the money for a lack of matching funds. The point I make is as much attitude as finances. As a state employee pointed out, if the city won’t come up with a nickel on the dollar, why would any one want to help with the 95 cents?

Mike tried to keep us informed on what was going on, was involved with the pilot group, was a promoter of the airport and will be missed. There is a very strong possibility that the airport commission will be next to go. The city’s disregard of their input into what has been happening is no accident.

The airport tower closing may seem a small issue to locals as we know where we are and many of us don’t use the instrument procedures often. It will require vigilance on our part, especially for the first few months, as visitors misread where they are, land or take-off downwind to favor the lake and try to figure out what our poorly placed ASOS is telling them.

The issue is less about the tower, the manager or the restaurant changing hands and more about priorities. Until the city stops calling every airport expense a subsidy and encourages business practices and development at the airport, this facility will continue to deteriorate. Apathy and neglect will kill this airport long before the League and TRPA are able to.

Don McCracken
TVL Airport Association

Editor’s Note: This was written to the members and supporters of the South Lake Tahoe Airport (TVL) Association