South Lake Tahoe Airport

Tuesday, June 20, 2006
Questions swirling around airport
By Amanda Fehd
The Tahoe (CA) Daily Tribune

Editor’s Note: The South Lake Tahoe Airport is fairly typical of many rural airports where the municipality does not understand its value. Airports are transportation infrastructure the same as highway’s 50 or 80 are. Given the current lack of attention and understanding by the city council, there is no doubt the airport could be more of an asset to the community. The question is, “Why doesn’t the City Council understand that and insure that the airport has a fair chance to prosper?….ed

The Lake Tahoe Airport operates at a loss of more than $500,000 annually, doesn’t track the number and type of aircraft that fly in and out, and is working on getting a noise monitoring system back in order, according to its manager, Smokey Rickerd. A controversy regarding a clear-cut of 387 trees on the north end of the airport for apparent safety reasons has prompted questions to the Tahoe Daily Tribune about the airport’s revenues, its mandated noise monitoring system, and the number and type of planes that land there.

It costs around $1.1 million a year to operate the airport. City subsidies amount to $594,000 per year. The city’s expected revenue from the airport this year is $512,000, according to city Accounting Manager Debbie McIntyre. That revenue includes $10,000 in grants from Caltrans’ Division of Aeronautics for sealing cracks in the runway.

If revenue increases, the city pays less in subsidies, McIntyre said.

When the city moved its office to the airport early this year, it continued to pay the subsidy, some of which is considered “rent” in a lease agreement required by the Federal Aviation Administration, according to Rickerd.

City manager Dave Jinkens said the city is still saving $113,000 in rent it paid on the property it had leased in town.

“The amount we pay to the airport has not increased, and we are now getting greater benefit than before,” Jinkens said.

Several commercial airlines have tried and failed to make it at the small airport. The last company left in 2000.

Rickerd was brought on a year ago as airport manager.

“If the airport was run the way an airport should be run, it would be very profitable,” Rickerd said.

The city does not keep records on how many and what types of aircraft land. It was forced by financial hardship to close down its airport tower in 2004.

“Since the tower is down, we don’t have a way of keeping track,” Rickerd said.

The airport’s service provider, a private company called Trajen, would not disclose the exact numbers or types of planes they see.

“We see anything from simple two-seat training aircraft to large corporate jets capable of transoceanic flights,” said Trajen manager John Parker. The company provides fuel and ramp services, catering and de-icing.

Planes over 6,000 pounds must pay a landing fee. All planes that stay overnight must pay as well. There is no requirement to sign in at the airport or with Trajen if the plane is less than 6,000 pounds, according to Rickerd.

Airport staff have been trying to fix the noise monitoring system, and are considering buying a new one, Rickerd said.

“We are desperately working hard on trying to get it fixed,” he said. “We had specialists out here trying to get it fixed, and an engineer with specs and plans. It’s a money issue. We’ll be trying to get it through FAA grants, hopefully with matching funds from the state to put in a new system.”

The airport must abide by a 1987 settlement agreement between South Lake Tahoe, the League to Save Lake Tahoe and the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency restricting noise levels to below 80 decibels.

The TRPA is charged with protecting several environmental standards, including noise.

“People can be annoyed by a specific noise source,” reads TRPA’s Goals and Policies document. “Thresholds were adopted that apply to aircraft, boats, motor vehicles, off-road vehicles, and snowmobiles to reduce impacts associated with single noise events.”

According to the most recent agency data, none of the noise standards are being met.

The Tribune has received calls complaining about large or noisy planes. It’s unclear whether the standard is being violated.

“A lot of times, people think big airplanes cause more noise. It’s not true – a lot of times the smaller airplanes cause more noise,” Rickerd said.

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