Air service between Elko and Reno has been attempted twice before and ended abruptly when subsidy funds ran out. Now there is a new initiative to get this service back in the air.
There has only been one previous attempt by Elko Regional Airport to establish an Elko-Reno flight using a subsidy provided through a grant. Awarded in 2005, the Small Community Air Service Development Grant provided subsidies over a one-year period to Scenic Airlines, which operated the Elko-Reno flight on a 19-seat Beechcraft 1900C turboprop aircraft. The Scenic Airlines Elko-Reno flight ended in February 2006 after the subsidy funds ran out. Since then, the airport has tried unsuccessfully to re-establish an Elko-Reno flight in 2008 using state funding.
Now in 2015, Elko Regional Airport is again trying to initiate an Elko-Reno flight leveraging lessons learned through the previous effort with Scenic Airlines. The proposal to start an Elko-Reno flight in 2015 will require 16,206 passengers in its first year to break even. This might seem like a huge number, but in prior years, Elko supported more than 16,000 business and leisure passengers to Reno. During 1999-2002, the airport averaged 17,450 passengers flying between Elko and Reno each year. Since that time period, the population of Elko has witnessed double digit growth.
Reno used to be the number-one air destination for those residing in Elko County.
Another significant difference is in the choice of airline. In 2005, the Elko-Reno flight was Scenic Airline’s first and only foray into operating scheduled airline flights. Scenic Airlines had — and continues to operate — as an air charter Grand Canyon sightseeing tour operator. Its primary business model has never been operating an airline. Elko was Scenic Airline’s first attempt at running a scheduled airline.
This time around, we are seeking an airline carrier whose core operation is operating a scheduled airline. Also notable, is we have sought an airline that already has an operating partnership with a major U.S. airline that Scenic Airlines did not. Through a code-share agreement with the American Airlines brand, passengers in Elko can book connecting American Airlines flights through Reno to major destinations across the West. By booking through American Airlines, passengers can also build airline points with a major established carrier. American Airlines represents 20 percent of the airline traffic in Reno. Under Scenic, there was no airline partnership and booking connecting flights through Reno meant Elko’s customers needed to claim their checked luggage and re-check those items and themselves into their next flight through another carrier.
This would not be required with the new airline.
A second major difference between when Scenic Airlines operated and now is the economic climate. At the time when Scenic Airlines began the Elko-Reno flight, Nevada was sliding into the worst economic recession since the Great Depression. Starting in 2006, Nevada has suffered from one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. The state lost 175,000 jobs during the recession, driven by dramatic losses in the construction, gaming and manufacturing industries.
While the state’s economy has not yet reached pre-recession levels, Nevada is adding more jobs than 48 other states in the fourth quarter of 2014.
Another significant change will be in marketing. When Scenic Airlines re-established the Reno-Elko flight, there was no marketing campaign that accompanied the restored service. In fact, the airport has not invested in a major airline marketing campaign since 2002. If we are successful in obtaining state funding to restore the Elko-Reno flight, it will be combined with a radio, billboard, newspaper, and internet advertising campaign to let the public know about the benefits of flying from Elko.
As airport director, I understand the public’s frustration over declining air service. However, if we re-establish an Elko-Reno flight we introduce competition in the Elko air service market and incrementally improve air fares over the long term. If Elko County’s residents use their local airport, they aid in building better air service in the future.
Mark Gibbs is the director of the Elko Airport.