The future of Tahoe travel: Airport ‘ghost town’ expects long route back to normal
Special to the Sierra Sun
President and CEO of the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority Carol Chaplin is stretched for time these days, jumping between meetings via Zoom and noticing that there are not as many gaps in her schedule that were more prevalent when physically travelling to and from places.
Already two months into the shelter-in-place order with business restrictions slowly being loosened, many are wondering how Tahoe’s prime summer season is going to be affected for tourism. A decent number of people come to Lake Tahoe by flying into the Reno-Tahoe International Airport, but many airplanes are currently grounded and there’s a new era of people afraid to fly.
The airport’s traffic flow is 95% down; the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority’s Vice President of Marketing and Public Affairs’ Brian Kulpin calls it a “ghost town.”
Chaplin says that ramping air travel back up depends on what the health guidelines and safety procedures are going to be, maybe less people will fly on aircraft and have to wear masks. The airport is currently monitoring reports and information from airline industry experts and analyzing how that fits into this region, but no one knows for sure what the future of air travel looks like.
“They’re saying that it will take 2-3 years to get back to ‘normal’. We’re going to be different from other airports in how we come back, but we’re still going to be a tourism-based region,” Chaplin says.
“The drive market will be the first to come back and people will be driving within a larger radius,” she adds. Chaplin believes that people will get into their cars and drive because it’s safer and they’ll be itching to get out of their houses to take road trips while still having memorable experiences with friends and family.
“Just getting out and having the experience of going someplace will be appealing to people,” Chaplin explains. That’s why the LTVA’s next marketing campaign will be focused on sticking closer to home, and the visitors’ authority is currently collaborating with regional partners about what the new wave of Tahoe tourism may look like.
Air travel is definitely down as flights have been reduced, postponed, or canceled (“It’s pretty quiet,” Chaplin says), but she doesn’t think that airlines will go out of business or commercial travel will stop.
“There’s a demand for commercial air service and that will come back again. We’ve had some great years as far as air service goes and people want to travel, they need to travel. It’s a big part of people’s lives,” she says.
“It’s going to change our visitor profile, and we like our destination guests because they don’t bring their cars and stay longer. It’ll take us a while to get back to normal, whatever that normal is, but it will come back,” Chaplin says.
Kulpin says that “in a two-month period, the entire aviation world just turned inside itself” and is shocked that after 54 consecutive months of passenger growth, it all the sudden came to a total standstill.
“It will take a long time to get back to those numbers,” he says of when the airport will bounce back. Kulpin explains that air travel is good for a region, the economy, tourism, and business, and it’s all taking a major hit right now.
“To come from that to be where we are today is dumbfounding,” he says.
The airport has seen a slight uptick (600-700 passengers daily) recently and cargo flights have actually been thriving, but Kulpin doesn’t believe that commercial air travel will change much until the country starts lifting stay-at-home restrictions, and then there will be the battle of restoring traveler confidence.
“I’ve been through 9-11 and dealt from the recovery from that. It was different, while this is an unseen enemy. So now we have to create a feeling of safety and ease when flying and many factors come into play to make people comfortable travelling again,” Kulpin says.
Usually in May it’s common to see 5,000-6,000 passengers coming and going through the airport daily, ramping up to around 9k people going through the airport’s doors in June. On a normal day, the airport averages 140 commercial flights which is now down to around 20.
“It’s an incredible experience to be in an airport that’s usually so busy,” Kulpin says. He explains that March and August are great times of the year for the airport, especially in good “Miracle March” snow years when many passengers are seen trekking through the airport with their skis and snowboards.
“Thirty percent of our traffic goes to Tahoe in March and that just disappeared,” he says. “It was so eerie. In late March the only skier we had in the airport was our statue,” says Kulpin.
As it stands right now, airlines have to fly a certain number of flights per day in certain cities to be eligible for the stimulus bailout that’s coming in September, so commercial airlines are still flying into Reno but then it may not have enough resources to send an empty plane back to its “home” airport. Therefore, the airport is also offering parking space for visiting airplanes.
For instance, there are 10-15 Southwest planes currently perched at the Reno-Tahoe Airport.
“We have only around 20-25 passengers on any flight right now (normally a flight averages 150 people); we’re happy to help airlines out and give them space to park,” Kulpin says.
While numbers are significantly down in air travel during these unprecedented times, the airport does have a recovery plan in place.
“A third of travelers out there will jump on a plane tomorrow, one-third of people are hesitant to fly, and one-third are truly frightened to go on a trip,” Kulpin says. Therefore, the airport is doing a social media push to help conjure up the good memories of visiting new places and assure people that more of them are to be had.
“We’re running a contest right now asking people to tell us about the greatest trip they’ve ever taken out of Reno-Tahoe for a chance to win some prizes, then we will want to know what your dream trip is. Then we’ll launch a digital marketing campaign about how we move you (from one place to another) and safely, with masks, gloves, social distancing, cleanliness. Everyone is working together to help you fly.
“We’re already the cleanest airport in the United States and we’re just going to boost that reputation,” he adds.
“Just know that whatever the travel experience is going to be, it will be different. Make sure there’s no quarantines when you land, make sure that you have a hotel or accommodations planned out. Be a smart traveler. Be flexible, there may not be food on a flight so bring a sandwich.
“I hope we see paddleboarders and mountain bikers coming through the airport in June, we love being the gateway to Tahoe and want to be that again.”
Kayla Anderson is a staff writer with the Tahoe Daily Tribune, a sister publication to the Sierra Sun.
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Through the final week of August and into September, Nevada County saw a surge of 488 confirmed COVID-19 cases, marking the highest number since early in the pandemic.