Rural Nevada airport managers eye ways of keeping, increasing flights

Rural airport managers strategized Thursday on how to preserve the limited commercial service they have and how to recruit airlines to connect their cities to McCarran and Reno-Tahoe international airports.

Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison, chairman of the Nevada Tourism Commission, led what’s believed to be the first meeting of airport directors from the state’s rural airports with representatives of McCarran and Reno-Tahoe.

After the two-hour meeting, Hutchison said he expects that within two weeks, airport leaders will establish a task force to address several issues common to the small airports, the biggest of which is preserving what limited air service they have.

The airports, through the task force, may ask the state Legislature at its next session to provide a means for “airline risk mitigation” — a subsidy to airlines willing to provide regular air service.

Legislation requesting a one-time air service subsidy failed late in the 2015 session and leaders attending Thursday’s session said they are interested in developing a long-term subsidy program for several airports. Hutchison said he wants to explore ideas that don’t seek room tax revenue or commitments from the Tourism Commission.

The problem of declining air service for rural communities is a growing problem as airlines dedicate their resources to markets where they can make money.

The essential air service program offered by the U.S. Transportation Department continues to shrink, and Elko was among the most recent communities to see federal subsidies for air service disappear.

Mark Gibbs, Elko Regional Airport director, said he fears Skywest Airlines, which operates as a Delta Air Lines commuter airline partner, would eliminate Elko service as Delta places greater emphasis on large planes and more routes between worldwide markets.

For markets such as Elko and Wendover, commercial air service is crucial to those cities’ health care needs. Representatives of Wendover Airport said they need commercial air service to assure that doctors routinely come to the city to provide for residents’ health needs.

Gibbs said air service to Elko is important to the city’s economy, but not for tourism — 80 percent of the passengers arriving in the city conduct business at the nearby gold mines, he said.

The rural airport managers are hopeful to get service that would connect their cities to Las Vegas or Reno. Elko’s Skywest service connects that community to Salt Lake City, a Delta hub airport. That means Elko residents who need to make a quick flight to Reno or Las Vegas would first have to fly to Salt Lake City and connect. Gibbs said it’s usually more likely that residents would drive more than four hours to get to Reno instead.

Another issue for rural communities is getting connections from Las Vegas with the state’s emphasis on marketing international tourists.

Representatives from McCarran and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority often sell the proximity of national parks to foreign air carriers. Even though the Grand Canyon is in Arizona, Southern Nevada tourism leaders point out that McCarran is the closest airport to that natural wonder.

“Everybody thinks the Grand Canyon is in Nevada,” said Larry Friedman, who heads the state Tourism Commission’s international marketing efforts. “I don’t want to be the one that tells them it isn’t.”

Marily Mora, president and CEO of Reno-Tahoe International Airport, said rural airports would be better served with more connecting flights from the state’s major airports and those connections would keep airport concession dollars and passenger facility charges in the state.

But Chris Jones, McCarran’s chief marketing officer, cautioned that the airport’s top mission is to serve the Las Vegas market and not function as a connecting airport to other cities. He added that valuable takeoff and landing slots may be best used by large aircraft with bigger passenger capacities as opposed to small planes that serve rural markets. McCarran officials, through incentive programs, have encouraged smaller planes to use Henderson Executive Airport or North Las Vegas Airport.

Mora also said an interline agreement between Southwest Airlines, which dominates at both Las Vegas and Reno, and international air carriers would benefit the state.

Contact Richard N. Velotta at rvelotta@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Find him on Twitter: @RickVelotta

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