McCarran Rising

Does Terminal 3 make Las Vegas the new gateway to the Pacific Rim?

On June 27, McCarran International Airport joined the Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles airports as a gateway to the Pacific Rim. The opening of Terminal 3—a state-of-the-art, $2.4 billion facility stretching nearly half of a mile in length—was a statement that Las Vegas means business in the global travel market. The terminal’s architectural design, spaciousness and automated interior rival some of the world’s finest, from Munich to Vancouver.

This crucial step has been a long time coming. In 1968, McCarran gained international status when Air West (soon to become Hughes Air West) began offering flights to Mexico. Since then, the international air travel visitor volume has grown from 800,000 in 1990 to 1.2 million in 2000 to 2.6 million in 2011, and the airlines serve destinations in more than a dozen countries. But if Las Vegas wanted to be a serious contender with Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles—three West Coast cities that pride themselves on being “gateway cities to the Pacific Rim”—it had to step up its game.

Terminal 3 does just that. For size, concessions and convenience, the 1.9 million-square-foot, three-story facility stacks up well alongside Terminal 4 at John F. Kennedy International Airport and Terminal 5 at Chicago’s O’Hare. With desert-themed works by local artists, diverse restaurants, upscale shops and automated self-check-in systems, McCarran took a major step forward. To reach its maximum potential, though, it will have to continue attracting more international airlines and visitors.

In 2000, Japan Airlines, Mexicana, Aero Mexico, Air Canada, Condor, Virgin Atlantic and a few others offered direct, nonstop international flights to Las Vegas. Today, 17 foreign airlines fly direct to McCarran. But the increase in international carriers in the past decade brought concerns, one of which was sustainability. How would service to Las Vegas remain profitable in a competitive and predominantly low-fare leisure-travel market?

Panama-based Copa Airlines representatives conveyed this concern to Las Vegas Convention and Visitor Authority (LVCVA) officials when the two groups met to discuss the possibility of passenger service between Panama City and Las Vegas. Damon Hylton, vice president of Seabury APG, and a consultant to the LVCVA, recently told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “It was a tough sell. [Copa] had a hard time believing in the potential for [connecting flights] to South America based on the [passenger market].” Experts offered two solutions: Las Vegans would also have to take advantage of affordable, direct, nonstop international flights—and more business- and first-class travelers would have to fly to international destinations from McCarran. To accommodate these travelers, the airport would need to build a state-of-the-art terminal with multiple lanes to make passing through customs easier and efficient for international travelers, baggage carousels conveniently located near ground transportation, and curbside parking spaces for air-conditioned shuttle buses and limousines waiting to take passengers to the megaresort casinos on the nearby Strip.

The remarkable thing is that the airport—buoyed by airline-use fees, passenger ticket taxes, parking garage fees and rent from concessionaires—managed to do exactly what needed to be done, and started construction on the terminal in 2008. With the terminal’s completion, McCarran is poised to attract more international airlines and visitors than ever before. The timing could not be better: Los Angeles International Airport is spending $1.5 billion to renovate its international terminal, and San Francisco already has built a new international terminal. In the battle for the Pacific Rim, the competition never rests.