Seven Questions for Randy Walker, McCarran’s Boss

Walker on his upcoming departure, the merits of a monorail stop and why visitors should appreciate our airport’s location

Photo by Anthony Mair

Photo by Anthony Mair

Randy Walker’s bio reveals two stints with the Clark County Department of Aviation: first as deputy director from 1990-95, then as director, the post he’s held since 1997. Not revealed, though, is Walker’s very first job with McCarran International Airport: After graduating high school in 1971, Walker and other recent graduates spent the summer working with the heavy-maintenance crew out on the airfield. “The guys who were assigned to us would come out and say, ‘Hey, you want to learn how to use that skip-loader and the dump truck?’” he recalls. “They were teaching us how to use all this heavy equipment. We were too young and dumb to figure out that they were probably getting us to do all their hard work for them. But we thought we were having fun.”

Little did Walker know that decades later he’d watch others operate the heavy equipment as he oversaw massive airport expansion projects, such as the construction of the D gates and, a year ago, Terminal 3. After 16 years as the airport’s captain, Walker will deplane on June 3, a few weeks shy of his 60th birthday. “I’m just retiring from government service. I’m ready to move on to my next era of life.”

Why retire now?

Terminal 3 finished about a year ago, and that’s the largest project we’ve ever done, and probably the last large project that’ll ever be done here at McCarran because we’re pretty much built out. So the next focus here needs to be really on driving the efficiencies of the organization. We’ve been building so fast for 30 years to keep up with the community and the hotel growth that we need to start focusing on efficiencies. … That means changing the way you do things. And when I looked forward, I came to the conclusion that I really wouldn’t stay [on the job] long enough to start and finish [that] process. So I thought it was a really good time for me to leave.

Did you think about sticking around until the monorail reaches McCarran?

I might not live that long.

On a more serious note, should the monorail extend to the airport? Well, if the monorail becomes a larger system, at least within the tourist corridor—has more than six stops, gets to the west side of the Strip—and we can figure out how we can take care of the [luggage] for our customers on the front and back end so they’re not riding the monorail with four to five bags between the couple, then I think the monorail would provide a good transportation alternative and would have some benefit. But coming to the airport as an extension of the existing system absolutely makes no sense and could not be economically viable given the six stops that are available. You wouldn’t have a large enough pool of customers. I think the airport would be helpful in a much larger system, but the airport by itself is not going to make the monorail successful.

Do you remember the very first time you flew into Las Vegas and what the Valley and airport looked like from above?

I do: It was the summer of 1970. I was 17 years old and went to Medillín, Colombia, as an exchange student for the summer—those were my first-ever flights. We actually went to what’s now the rotunda—the A and B gates, that’s pretty much what the airport was—walked down the stairs and onto the [tarmac], walked across [the tarmac] and went up the stairs and into the airplane.

The airport was so small then. In fact, sometimes we have somebody who’s relatively new to the community who wants to know what idiot put the airport in the middle of town. So one time I emailed someone a copy of the 1951 aerial [photo] when the airport was literally in the middle of nowhere. And the community just grew up around us.

What’s the most underrated feature of the airport?

How close we are to where most people want to go, and that’s the Strip. When I [fly into] a lot of cities, once I get my bags and get in a cab, sometimes it’s a long ride to get to where I want to go—you go to Orlando or Denver, some of those places, it’s a long drive.

Ivanpah airport: Good idea whose time has come or bad idea that should be laid to rest?

It was a good idea at the time because the community was growing so fast that we could actually see the point in time when we would reach the ultimate capacity of this airport. The recession has changed all of that. So right now, it’s basically on hold. We’ll continue to own the land, and if we ever get back to the point where this airport is going to exhaust its capacity and the community still wants to grow, then we’re going to revisit that.

There was a time, for four or five years, when we would go out with the [Las Vegas] Convention [and Visitors] Authority and meet with the hotels, and the first thing every hotel executive asked me was, “When’s that new airport going to be open?” Nobody asks me that anymore. So it’s just a change of circumstance.

Window seat or aisle seat?

Aisle every time, if I can get it. I just like the ease of getting in and out. Plus, I’ve flown so many times [sitting] in the window seat—I’ve seen enough out of the window.

What do you remember about your summer job working at McCarran before leaving for college?

For two weeks, they were working on the plan to basically [extend] the concourses, and they were deciding whether they were going to put in the people-mover system—the moving walkways. They had us count people for two weeks because they wanted to have numbers to show to the county commissioners as the justification for spending the money. So we sat at this little table with our hard hats on with this little counter, and we just counted every person who came by, wherever our little checkpoint was. I guess it worked because they put the moving walkways in.

Somebody told me later they counted the people during the Lions Convention, which at the time was the biggest convention that came to town. So it might’ve been a little bit of a stacked deck on the numbers. But we were in someway tangentially associated with that decision.

You’ve worked for virtually every public entity in town, from the county to the city to Metro, holding a variety of positions at each stop. Which was the most fulfilling?

This one, absolutely, by far. Sixteen years as the director of the airport has been very rewarding, very fun. It’s challenging at times, but in a good way. … The one thing we realize here at the airport is we’re the first and last look that almost half the people who come to town and drive our economy get. So we strive very hard to make that a positive experience so they’ll feel good when the arrive, but most importantly, they’ll feel good when they leave, so maybe they’ll tell their friends and neighbors that it’s a good experience.

Most people in the community have a high regard for the airport’s efficiency, for our ability to process the high volumes of traffic. It’s very gratifying when I go speak and people come up to me afterward—particularly those who travel a lot—and say, “Hey, I love our airport. I go everywhere, and this is the most efficient airport.” Not that they don’t have some suggestions for how we might do better, and that’s always fair. But overall, I generally get nothing but positive comments from all these businesspeople when I go talk to them.

What was behind the decision to display the local artwork in the terminals?

Growing up here, one thing I always got a chuckle out of—particularly when I was old enough and went off to college—was when people found out you were from Las Vegas, they wanted to know which hotel you lived in and did you actually go to school here. People just had no concept that there was an actual community in Las Vegas. So at one point we said, “You know, maybe our art ought to reflect our community.” Not all of it does, but a lot of it does—particularly the children’s art, [so visitors] can see that we have kids, they go to school, they do the same kind of things that kids in other communities do. Then we got some art to reflect some of the landscapes—we just asked [artists] to do things that were typical to Southern Nevada. Not the cityscape type of stuff, but Red Rock or the [Hoover] Dam.

Subtly, it gives people the chance to see that there’s more to Vegas than maybe what they’ve seen from their cab ride to their hotel and back to the airport.

As you were watching the events of 9/11 unfold, did you know immediately that air travel would change forever?

It didn’t take long. I remember I was at the annual Airports Council International World Conference in Montreal on 9/11—along with most of the other airport directors from around the world. I was standing outside one of the big rooms where they were having a joint session talking to some other airport folks, and all of a sudden we saw all of the FAA people come running out of the room with these looks on their faces. We looked at each other and said, “Something bad is going on.” It didn’t take long to figure out that security at airports was going to change significantly going forward. And that would change the way we had to manage the flow of people. We had nine checkpoint lanes when 9/11 happened; it didn’t take us very long to increase that to 34. We had to move mountain and earth to get enough physical capacity.

What was it like coming to work in the first couple of days after 9/11?

I didn’t get back for a few days—we couldn’t get out of Montreal. Maybe six days later I got back; 10 of us who were there at the conference actually had to rent three cars and drive from Montreal to Albany, [New York], and then the next day we picked up a Southwest flight and came back, because they opened the domestic flights before the international flights. In the meantime, I was bugging the staff—probably more than I should as they were doing their job—and they were running around, first trying to get everybody out of the airport, because they had to clear it out, and then working with the FAA on what they had to do to certify to get reopened. I’m proud to say that [McCarran] was the first airport in the country to get certified to reopen—and that was before they let anybody start flying; we were certified to receive traffic before the traffic was actually authorized to use the skies. So by the time I came back, the hardest part was over.

What was the scene like when air travel resumed?

When we reopened and had to manage the lines—they were just awful. Literally we had to put cattle guards out on the curb—we had to take a lane of traffic away just so we could queue people standing in line waiting to get through the ticket counter and up to the checkpoint. Everybody was working extra shifts, including me—it was a seven-day-a-week, 12-hours-a-day job for all the management people for a few weeks. And it was on the fly—nobody had ever done this before, and we were just trying to figure out, including, “How are we going to queue people so there’s not fistfights?” because you know what happens when somebody thinks somebody else is cutting in line, particularly when you’ve been standing in line for an hour. So how are we going to avoid fistfights breaking out in the airport?

We started seeing things like people slipping the skycap 20 bucks to cut them to the front of the line, so we had to put stop to that kind of stuff. But I’ll tell you what: One of the things we found out in a real hurry was who our leaders were, because leadership doesn’t always attach itself to position. So we found some real leaders who you could give some very general direction and send out and say, “Just manage it.” And they stepped up to the plate and helped us figure things out on the fly. Through all of that we became pretty good experts on how to queue people, how to manage lines—probably something we never really wanted to have to learn, but we learned it really, really well. And 9/11 made us become really good at it to survive; I don’t think too many airports had the kind of lines we had for the first little while. So I’m very proud of the team and what they were able to accomplish during those very difficult times.

What are the biggest aviation challenges facing Southern Nevada in the next five to 10 years?

The volume of seat capacity coming into the airport. In 2007, we handled 47.8 million passengers. Last year we handed 41.5 million passengers. So we’re clearly still significantly down from our peak. At the same time, hotel rooms were added—you had CityCenter come on line, plus some other things. And the percentage of customers who come by air is less than it used to be—and, of course, the customer volume itself, although it’s come back very well the last couple of years, still is not what it used to be.

I think it’s going to be a struggle over the next five years to grow back to what we used to be, because the airlines, for the first time that I’ve been in this business … have the ability to have some pricing power so that they can price their product in a way to actually make money; at some point in time, the airlines have to make money, or they won’t stay in business. And I don’t see that [business plan] changing. With the consolidations and other things, there’s going to be less opportunity for somebody to come in and flood a market with seats to try to cap their market share. So the growth here is going to be very slow and deliberate to get back to the way we were before.

With Terminal 3 open, we have the gates that we need; the airfield is pretty much where it needs to be. So we have the capacity to get back to the 48 million [annual] passengers and beyond. But it’s up to the market place, so that’s going to be a struggle in the next four or five years.

Where’s your favorite place in the airport to grab lunch?

Oh, there are so many good places now! I just had lunch today at Pei Wei over in Terminal 3, which is wonderful. We also have one in the C Gates, which is going to gross, it looks like, over $4 million in its first year of operation. I like California Pizza Kitchen. I like Ruby’s—great hamburgers. I like the Chophouse. I like La Tapenade.

What’s funny is, my staff will tell I’ve eaten lunch the majority of days every week here at the airport, and there’s a reason to do that: I want to go stand in line; I want to see how the customers are being treated; I want to see the speed of the service, the quality of the food, the demeanor of the employees. And if it’s unacceptable, we’re going to do something about it.

For a long time, the staff would say, “Do we have to eat at the airport again?” because we’d rotate through and run out of places—“Not there again!” Now everybody says, “Oh, we haven’t been to Pei Wei for two weeks.” Now I don’t get any complaints from the staff when I say, “We’re going to eat at the airport.”

Ballpark this figure: How many air miles have you logged in the last 22½ years?

I have no idea. I always try to fly different airlines through different cities, so I haven’t latched onto one airline just to generate a bunch of frequent-flyer miles. Because when I travel, I try to make it a learning experience.

I remember being on the moving walkway in Amsterdam one time and I’m looking up, and I said to the guy who was with me, “Look at that ceiling. Look how bad it is; it’s dirty, it’s dusty. That was an idiotic design.” He was my marketing guy, and he looked at me and said, “I have been through this airport a dozen times, and I have never noticed that.” So I look at airports differently than anybody else.

Obviously, if I want to get there in a hurry, my favorite is the one that flies direct and has the most service and is on time. They’re all our partners; we like them all. Clearly, Southwest is the largest carrier here, they have the most service, so very often they have the most convenient flight.

Well, now that you’re on your way out, you can answer this honestly: What’s your favorite airline to fly and why?

It depends. What are you looking for? Are you looking for on-time and efficiency? Not too many beat Southwest for that. If you’re looking for in-flight entertainment, then maybe Virgin; they do a good product. JetBlue does a good product. … I don’t particularly like the [airlines] that I have to worry about every little aspect—do I have to pay for my seat and this and that? Some people love that, because they get to get the price down to exactly what they want. And I don’t have a problem with airlines charging the auxiliary fees—I have no issue with that from a business standpoint at all. None! It’s just that, personally, I prefer to fly on a carrier where there aren’t as many fees as some other ones.

What’s your best-kept secret for local travelers?

If you’re flying out of the D Gates, and you’re not checking a bag, use Terminal 3—no matter [what airline] you’re flying. Because there’s a train from Terminal 3 that connects you to the D Gates. So if you’re flying, say, Delta, and you’re not—capital letters, underlined NOT—checking a bag, then you can park in T3, use the T3 security checkpoint, and go down and take the train. It’s a little more efficient getting to the D Gates from Terminal 3 than Terminal 1.

What was your reaction when you heard about the push to rename McCarran?

I can see why people would want to do it. One of the challenges we have when we go outside the community and you say McCarran, nobody knows what you’re talking about. I’ll bet if you did a survey in our community and asked why the airport is named McCarran, if you had two in a 100 who knew the correct answer, I would be surprised. So I could see why some would think it would be a good idea to change it, and personally I’m not opposed to it. But there are two problems: It’s expensive; there are a lot of costs to change the name, so people need to understand that. And at the time it was raised, we were in the middle of the recession; we had been cutting costs anywhere we could so we could stay afloat. So that’s probably not a really good time to be talking about something that’s not necessary.

Secondly, it has to be done in the right forum and raised the right way. Having a public body that doesn’t manage the airport suggest to another public body that they ought to change the name of their asset, that’s probably not the best to way to try to approach that. So the timing was bad from a cost standpoint, and the method in which it was raised was probably not the most productive. Having that discussion and having the community decide whether it’s worth it at some point in time when it’s more appropriate I think is a legitimate discussion.

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