Few places in Las Vegas have shown the effects of the recession like McCarran International Airport, with passenger volume down roughly 16 percent from its 2007 peak of 48 million passengers.
But Clark County Aviation Director Randy Walker sees a tiny silver lining in this whole mess, as the development of Terminal 3 keeps some 1,800 construction workers employed through next year. The $2.4 billion project is 68 percent complete, he says, on budget and on schedule to open by June 2012.
“It’s sad to see what the construction industry is going through,” Walker says. “But for the first time in 20 years we weren’t challenged to find enough qualified workers to work on a site.”
With $500 million invested for civil engineering and utilities work, along with the relocation of Russell Road, questions loomed in 2008 whether the third terminal should be put on hold for a few years, as passenger numbers dropped.
“We could not have continued [at the current configuration] with 48 million passengers. … It would have completely broken the system down,” Walker says. “By choosing to continue with the project, we made the decision to not be an impediment to future growth.”
Terminal 3 will add 14 new gates to the mix, accommodating an extra 6 to 7 million passengers per year. The 1.87 million-square-foot site will bring the airport to its full capacity of 53 million passengers.
The airline industry as a whole gave signs in 1999 and in 2007 of its inability to handle peak demand, says Airport Council International President Greg Principato. Planes stuck on the tarmac for hours at airports during those times were a warning sign for an industry that, through a 2009 ACI survey, recently indicated a need for $94.3 billion in capital improvements such as runway upgrades, air-traffic control modernizations and terminal expansions.
Principato also said airports didn’t take advantage of a lull after 9/11. This time around, he says, it’s different. Expansions in Sacramento, Calif., and Atlanta, which is also adding an international terminal, are a good sign that the industry took the hint.
McCarran’s third terminal will add six international gates to the mix. International travelers have been the lone bright spot when it comes to passenger growth in Las Vegas, accounting for about 14 percent of incoming passengers in 2009, up from 12 percent in 2007.
An expanded customs area that can process 2,000 passengers an hour, compared with 800 today, is a welcome addition, says John Bischoff, Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority vice president of international brand strategy. Bischoff works to market the Vegas brand internationally, and finding new air service to and from international destinations is very much part of that equation.
“We can now say, ‘Here’s a new terminal. The customer experience is quicker and more efficient,’” he says. “It just adds a little icing on the cake to advertise the evolution of Las Vegas.”