A Look At Reno-Tahoe Airport's Impact On Regional Economy

Oct 3, 2016

The Reno-Tahoe International Airport recently launched new air service to Long Beach, California. Soon the airport will add flights to Dallas Love Field and Atlanta, Georgia.

Reno Public Radio’s Noah Glick explores what these non-stop flights mean for the region.

“This is a huge economic impact for not only business, but for tourism. We’re seeing this huge uptick in this region, right? So it really goes to show you. Airlines don’t bring in flights that aren’t necessary.”

That’s Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve, speaking at August’s announcement of a new daily, nonstop JetBlue flight between Reno and Long Beach, California.

She’s standing among the marching band and cheerleading squad from Damonte Ranch High School, which came to show support for the new local service.

But why all the fanfare for a seemingly small flight?

Marily Mora is the president and CEO of the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority. She says that flight, and others like it, are signs the region is growing.

“In calendar year 2015, that was the largest increase we’ve had in about ten years. Our passengers were up eight percent last calendar year. And that trend is really continuing.”

"I think what we've seen is a lot of collaboration, a lot of economic diversification. But all of those things are working well for Reno-Tahoe International to see an uptick in passenger numbers, but also our cargo numbers," says Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority CEO Marily Mora.
Credit Noah Glick

Mora says the airport has been able to attract more airlines through a revamped Reno-Tahoe Regional Air Service Corporation. That’s basically a group a local tourism businesses that have banded together to raise funds for marketing and take on some of the risks.

“About a year and a half ago, they incorporated to help us be able to sign a risk mitigation agreement with an airline. And often times, in the case of JetBlue, the community needed to be a partner a bit in the risk of a new flight.”

The regional air service corporation works with the business community as well to determine its needs. Chairman Andy Wirth, who is also the CEO of Squaw Valley Ski Holdings, points to a conversation he had with a director at Tesla as an example.

“He said, ‘We need more lift out of the Bay Area for people at Panasonic and our company in Tesla, and our suppliers and all that.’ Well, interestingly enough, about 11 months later we announced Southwest three-a-days out of Oakland airport. That was to support a very key element of the community.”

And it’s not just the Teslas and the Switches looking for more lift. 

Consultant Dennis Cuneo says most businesses are looking for adequate air service when they choose where to expand operations.
Credit Noah Glick

“Just about every site selection that I’ve been involved in—and there have been many—airports are always an important consideration…You need airports to see your customers, to see your suppliers. If you’re a division, to get back to headquarters, if you’re headquarters, so you can get out to see your divisions.”

That’s Dennis Cuneo. He’s a Reno-based consultant who previously led site selections for Toyota’s billion-dollar assembly plants.

He says the Reno area, which includes Sparks, Carson City and Fernley, is the 115th largest in the country. But the traffic rank for the airport: 67th.

“So for a metropolitan region of say 500,000, and I’m thinking of a place like Lexington, Kentucky. The Reno airport has I think, twice as much traffic. It has 3 or 4 more airlines and it has many more nonstop flights than Lexington.”

In the last three years, about 25 corporate headquarters have been added to the Reno-Tahoe area. That’s according to Mike Kazmierski, the director of the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada.

“By adding flights we’ve been able to attract companies. By attracting companies and putting more demand at the airport, they’ve been able to convince airlines to add more flights.”

Airport Authority CEO Marily Mora says despite the obvious need for more flights, it’s not always an easy sell.

“There are over 400 airports that are competing when we go out to get a new airline and get additional air service here. So we have to really distinguish ourselves and really make our community stand out.”

And getting the flights here is really just the first step, says Kazmierski.

“If you can’t get an airplane full 70-80 percent of the time, you’re going to lose that flight. So it’s very much demand-driven. And if we cannot continue to fill these aircraft, we’re going to lose them.”

The Reno-Tahoe Airport saw a 29 percent decrease in total passengers from 2007 to 2009, during the height of the recession.

Coming out of those hard times, both Kazmierski and Mora say the goal moving forward is to keep flights that are already here full, before moving into more direct and international options.