Virus-related travel decline hits Las Vegas helicopter tours

LAS VEGAS (AP) — The plummeting of international travel in the wake of COVID-19 has put dozens of helicopter tour pilots and staffers out of work in southern Nevada.

Several companies known for scenic tour flights to the Las Vegas Strip and Grand Canyon have cut significant slices of their staff to mirror business demand, according to documents filed with Nevada employment officials.

Bryan Kroten, Maverick Helicopters’ vice president of marketing, said the pandemic has most impacted the number of flights the company makes to the Grand Canyon – bookings that almost entirely come from international travelers.

“There’s a lot less travelers visiting Vegas today than there was eight months ago,” Kroten said. “The majority of our guests that fly to the Grand Canyon are international guests.”

In a letter to state officials, Maverick revealed the company would have to lay off almost 75 employees – including 23 helicopter mechanics and 21 pilots.

“Initially, we were optimistic that once resorts were permitted to reopen and states began to reopen, travel would resume and our business levels would increase,” Maverick President John Buch wrote in the letter. “We could not possibly have foreseen the duration and severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, or its impact on out industry.”

In August, Sundance Helicopters – one of the world’s largest helicopter tour companies based in Las Vegas – permanently closed in response to coronavirus travel fallout. The layoffs of 114 employees preceded the closure.

Grand Canyon Scenic Airlines, a small plane operator that gives tours out of Boulder City, notified state officials this month that 92 employees would lose their jobs and 13 others would be furloughed.

The company was optimistic business would return at the end of May 2020 with the lifting of pandemic restrictions and reopening of national parks. But COVID-19 cases spiked around the country and restrictions returned, canceling travel plans and keeping would-be visitors at home.

“Domestic business for scenic air tours,” the company wrote in a Sept. 3 letter to Nevada officials, “has remained at a standstill.”

While international travel is down, domestic travel to the Las Vegas Strip has increased. That’s translated into a boost in local business for companies like Maverick – the one “silver lining” in this story, Kroten said.

Maverick would not share details about the number of Las Vegas Strip tours booked in recent weeks, but Kroten said the numbers are “significant.”

The company is hopeful the scenic tour industry will soon return to form, allowing laid off staffers back to work.

“We see this as a short-term blip on the radar,” Kroten said.