Serving Southern Nevada

Posted: 22 February 2010 | Rosemary A. Vassiliadis, Deputy Director, Clark County Department of Aviation, McCarran International Airport (LAS) | No comments yet

2009 was a challenging year for the aviation industry, as a widespread economic slowdown cast a pall over the development plans of numerous airports around the globe.

2009 was a challenging year for the aviation industry, as a widespread economic slowdown cast a pall over the development plans of numerous airports around the globe.

While Las Vegas has been anything but immune to today’s turbulent financial con­ditions, those in charge of the seventh busiest airport in North America are bullish on the future and remain committed to completing its nearly $3 billion capital improvement plan less than three years from now.

“We’re looking toward the future of Southern Nevada, making sure that McCarran International Airport is ready and able to serve this community for years into the future, long after today’s concerns have faded into history,” said Randall H. Walker, Director of the Clark County Department of Aviation, which owns and operates McCarran.

T3 rising

McCarran’s growth effort is highlighted by Terminal 3, a nearly two million-square-foot facility that’s set to open in mid-2012. The project’s steel infrastructure was recently completed three months ahead of schedule, allowing workers to begin 2010 focused on the tasks of completing the exterior façade, while addressing other important elements within the massive three-storey structure.

When construction efforts peaked in December 2009, more than 1,800 workers were employed on site. Overall, nearly three million man hours were dedicated to the project in 2009 alone, making this airport revenue-funded venture one of the largest ongoing construction projects in Nevada.

Work is currently underway on T3’s roadway system, where crews are working to integrate the new facility with several existing roadways, including a busy six-lane tunnel that provides airport users with access to and from the nearby Interstate 215 highway. As the New Year began, deck pours were also in progress on the fourth level of what will ultimately be an eight-level, 6,000-space parking structure. Staff are pursuing plans to implement a one mega­watt solar energy plant, located atop the yet-to-be-completed parking garage. Inside, the boilers and chillers are also primed and poised to begin operations.

Terminal 3 is more than the sum of its parts. The main building itself will offer 14 additional gates, including six set aside for international service, along with an expanded U.S. Customs and Border Protection port of entry. Terminal 3 will serve a portion of McCarran’s busy D Concourse, alleviating the existing pressure that stems from currently driving more than 90 percent of all McCarran passengers through Terminal 1.

“Unless they’re flying on a foreign carrier or taking a trip to Hawaii, nearly all of our pass­engers are processed through one central building. They park there, they check bags and get their boarding passes there, and go through security screening there,” Walker said. “That puts a lot of pressure on Terminal 1, particularly when we’re dealing with more than 40 million passengers per year.

“The opening of T3 will greatly relieve the stresses that we’ve seen at Terminal 1 by allowing travellers to utilise whichever garage is closest to their flight, whichever ticketing lobby is closest to their flight, and so on. It’s an option we’ve not been able to offer under the current configuration,” he added.

In recent months, McCarran has also made efforts to improve several aspects of its infrastructure elsewhere within the airport environs. In April 2009, crews completed a resurfacing of the airfield’s 10,500-foot-long Runway 25L/7R and connected the airport to a new power substation to increase the airport’s connectivity to nearby electrical power sources. In late 2008, a pedestrian bridge opened that connected the A, B and C Con­courses post-security, and McCarran opened a new 5,000-space surface parking lot to better suit the needs of its Las Vegas-area customers.

“They were all projects that were planned prior to the recession and ensuing slowdown in passenger activity. In one way the reduced traffic was a blessing in disguise, since it’s easier to close a runway when you’re less busy than it is when you’re operating at close to peak capacity,” Walker said. “It was prudent to complete those jobs, and now that they’re finished we’re in a better position to handle the crowds when air traffic resumes its historic growth rate.”

Keeping pace

For decades, McCarran’s greatest operational challenge could be summarised with one word: growth. According to U.S. Census data, Clark County Nevada’s population rose from slightly more than 460,000 residents in 1980 to nearly 1.9 million by mid-2008. During that period, the Las Vegas area’s annual visitor volume skyrocketed from 11.9 million in 1980 to a record-high 39.1 million visitors in 2007.

The influx of residents and additional travellers was driven in large part by multi- billion dollar investments from Southern Nevada’s travel industry. Over the past 21 years, dozens of signature resorts including The Mirage (1989), MGM Grand (1993), The Venetian (1999) and Wynn Las Vegas (2005) came online. New resorts in turn supported additional businesses, and provided employment that further fuelled the area’s rapid growth. The resort development boom also brought the Strip its latest attraction, MGM Mirage’s $8.5 billion CityCenter, which opened its Aria, Mandarin Oriental and Vdara resorts and Crystals retail centre in December 2009.

Clark County leaders recognised long ago that McCarran also needed to grow, as well as improve its efficiency, to prevent the airport from becoming a choke point that would impede the community’s seemingly never-ending tide of arriving and departing travellers. From the 1978 approval of the ambitious “McCarran 2000” plan and continuing through the ongoing development of McCarran’s current capital improvement plan, the Clark County Department of Aviation has for decades pressed forward to ensure that its airports had sufficient space available to serve the community’s commercial air service needs.

“When the McCarran 2000 expansion opened in the mid-1980s, critics initially said there was way too much space and the airport would never be able to fill it,” Walker said. “But by December 1986, McCarran had surpassed one million passengers per month for the first time in nearly four decades of operation. A similar pattern arose just about every time someone made a decision to expand the airport. Critics would initially say, ‘It’s too much. We don’t need it.’ But within a very short period of time after those expansions opened, the airlines had quickly absorbed whatever excess capacity the airport had created.”

McCarran 2000 brought the airport its first satellite concourse, the C gates; an expanded baggage claim, ticketing lobby and retail esplanade; as well as a multistorey parking structure. In the ensuing years, the C Con­course was further expanded, and in 1998 the airport again grew with the opening of the $290 million D Concourse. That area was later expanded with two new wings that opened in 2005 and 2008, eventually raising McCarran’s gate total to 104 airport-wide.

Air traffic at McCarran grew accordingly, with annual arriving and departing passenger counts rising from 10.3 million in calendar 1980 to a record-high 47.7 million in 2007. While the current economic recession has since reduced that activity to approximately 40 million passengers served in 2009, Clark County leaders remain optimistic that an economic rebound will again drive traffic toward McCarran’s sustainable peak of app­roximately 53 million passengers per year.

“Not long ago, there was a real concern in this community that McCarran would not be able to open a new terminal quickly enough to keep pace with increasing traveller demand,” Walker said. “Recessions don’t last forever, and when this one ends we expect that our air traffic will begin to grow once again. We’re readying our facilities to meet that future demand, while at the same time doing all we can to keep our operating costs low.”

Maximised efficiency

McCarran’s recent and future growth includes its share of ‘brick and mortar’ additions. But with a limited 2,800-acre footprint, traditional construction projects alone would only go so far toward extending McCarran’s ability to handle an increased number of daily passengers.

“This airport has four runways, and because it’s surrounded by development there’s no land readily available to build a fifth runway,” said Walker, whose office enjoys a striking view of several Strip resorts located across from the adjacent airfield. “Even if we wanted to build more terminal space beyond Terminal 3 – which would be a challenge, given that lack of available land – additional ticketing counters, hold rooms or jet bridges would not address the fact that this airfield can only accommodate a finite number of flights before congestion would negatively impact our operations.

“Additionally, it’s expensive to build new buildings or facilities. That’s a key reason why we’ve aggressively turned toward technology and other out-of-the-box strategies to make the best use of the infrastructure that’s already in place at McCarran.”

So-called “common use” airports are the norm in much of the world, though U.S. airports still largely adhere to an airline-driven approach in which an individual carrier main­tains exclusive rights to its leased ticketing and gate areas. Walker said an airline-centric model would not have worked at McCarran as passenger activity soared in recent decades. That’s why McCarran began implementing its common use approach, which after years of preparatory work went into effect in 1997.

“Until recently, McCarran had nearly 1,700 flights per day and less than 100 gates available to accommodate them,” Walker said. “There’s no way this airport could have handled that type of volume without common use. To let a gate stand idle for most of the day, simply because one airline had leased that gate but only needed it for one or two turns, would not have met the needs of the Las Vegas community. The economic engine here is driven by the tens of thousands of visitors who move in and out of town each day. We needed to maximise each and every gate to keep those passengers flowing.”

In addition to shared jet bridges, customer service podiums and ticketing space, McCarran also centralised its information systems infrastructure and added airport-run ramp control towers to alleviate congestion. In the aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks, the airport centralised the baggage screening process by way of a $135 million inline baggage screening system. This was largely financed through federal support from the U.S. Transportation Security Administration. Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) baggage tags are used to keep checked items flowing smoothly through the maze of conveyers and screening devices. McCarran also remains one of only a handful of airports that are utilising RFID on 100 percent of its checked outbound luggage, and pioneered the use of common use, multiple airline ticketing kiosks, including at off-airport locations.

According to research conducted by McCarran’s planning team, the adoption of common use terminal equipment (commonly known as CUTE) resulted in a 15 percent im­provement in efficiency. In other words, CUTE’s improved efficiency essentially equated to the realisation of an added 15 gates, at a cost that would have been roughly equal to that of actually constructing just one more gate.

Looking ahead, McCarran management has worked closely with representatives from others in the industry to take common use into the 21st century using a new protocol known as CUPPS, or Common Use Passenger Pro­cessing Systems. Select airline customers were first served at McCarran using the CUPPS protocol in early 2009, with the International Air Transport Association, Air Transport Association and Airports Council International pledging their support toward this key, industry-wide collaborative effort.

Separately, McCarran last year also pioneered the roll-out of a multiple carrier mobile phone boarding pass reader, that eliminated the need for paper boarding passes among the services users. Airport leaders believe both CUPPS and mobile check-in have only scratched the surface of their potential for improving the air traveller’s experiences when flying, either through Las Vegas or elsewhere in the world.

“If there’s a new technology available that can change the game, odds are good that you’ll see it in use at McCarran long before you see it commonly deployed. We’re not averse to rolling the dice and trying something new if there’s potentially a big upside in store,” Walker said.

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