ELKO, Nev. (AP) - Casino Express, a charter flight program that has brought thousands of gamblers to the this small casino town for years, is marking an end of an era this week.
The last inbound flight of passengers arrived Wednesday morning from Lawton, Okla. When their plane leaves on Friday, it will be the end of Casino Express junkets.
"It's really sad to see it go," said David Zornes, chief executive officer of McClaskey Holdings LLC, who founded the program in the 1980s when he was general manager of the Red Lion Inn & Casino.
"It's tough on employees and even on the customers who have been coming here 10 to 15 times," he said.
Red Lion flew chartered flights into Elko beginning in December 1986, and McClaskey started Casino Express Airlines in June 1989.
The flight cancellations also resulted in the layoffs of about 100 workers between the five McClaskey properties that includes the Red Lion and Gold Country Inn, High Desert Inn, Holiday Inn Express and the Thunderbird, Zornes said.
The flights brought in about 40,000 people a year, said Lisa Dunn, chief executive officer of Xtra Airways, which flies the charter planes for the Casino Express program.
"All of our employees are saddened at the loss of the Elko program. In the future, we hope the entire community can join together to do some sort of program," said Lisa Dunn, president of Xtra Airways.
"And if there is a program, we absolutely want to be the airline," she said.
Xtra Airways is the new name of Casino Express Airlines that flew passengers to Elko and was owned by the late Tod McClaskey.
McClaskey Holdings earlier reported the company couldn't afford to continue the program based on high fuel costs and lower passenger counts in light of nationwide gambling competition.
Xtra Airways laid off 10 people employed in ground control for the Casino Express flights, but Dunn said the airline has hired several people for office staff in anticipation of increased charter flights.
The airline office remains in Elko, and the airline recently unveiled its first 737-800 jetliner as part of a fleet of four. The company plans to add five more planes by November.
"That's our business plan, to more than double our fleet," Dunn said.
But the planes aren't based in Elko. They are in Wendover, Utah, for a casino flight program there to Boston, Cincinnati and St. Louis.
The loss of Casino Express will affect Elko Regional Airport, which is losing landing and passenger fees, and the city and Elko County are working to address the $400,000 shortfall.