Las Vegas: In For a Smooth Landing?

Successful Meetings' Destinations Editor Terri Hardin recently spoke with Randall Walker, director of aviation at McCarran International Airport, about the facility's ability to meet rapidly growing passenger traffic projections in Las Vegas.

Successful Meetings: Will McCarran be able to accommodate the demand of air passengers to Las Vegas in the near future?

Randall Walker: If you use the most aggressive projection—that some 35,000 hotel rooms are coming on line between now and 2012, and that every new hotel room means 320 more air passengers a year—the scenario is that we could reach our capacity around 2012. And without improvements or procedural changes that might increase capacity, we could see ourselves in a situation where we have some challenges in meeting the demand.

Obviously, we're working on a plan for a new airport. But because we're in an environmental impact process that's out of our control—it's a federal process—we're projecting that the earliest we can have a second airport operational is 2017.

SM: What steps are you taking now to address capacity issues?

Walker: We're trying to encourage corporate jet traffic to use a general aviation airport in [nearby] Henderson. We're putting in the kinds of facilities and amenities that corporate jet operators expect: a 6,500-foot runway and a very nice corporate-style terminal building. If you had a group with a lot of participants coming by private aircraft, we would certainly be agreeable to setting up a special arrangement at Henderson. A large, commercial aircraft charter, like a Boeing 737, would have to come to McCarran.

SM: What's stopping McCarran from expanding? Is it the proximity of the Strip hotels?

Walker: Clearly the Tropicana, the MGM, Mandalay Bay, Excalibur, Luxor, and New York-New York are all very close to McCarran. That's one of the thrills about McCarran: People get really excited looking out of the plane window and seeing the hotels—maybe even finding the hotel that they'll be staying at.

But that's not really the problem. For us to get more airfield capacity at McCarran, we would need 4,200 feet of separation between our southernmost runway and a new east-west runway so that we could get what we call simultaneous operations. [To do that], Sunset Road, the Hughes Business Park, and the beltway section of I-215 would all have to come out. It's just not practical, for a lot of reasons.

SM: What steps can a group take to avoid air-traffic constraints?

Walker: When we talk about airfield capacity, we're really talking about peak operations. Typically, the busiest days are Thursdays and Sundays, then Fridays and Mondays, because that's how the hotel business works. We actually have a lot more capacity on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays, because typically those are the days that people don't arrive and leave Las Vegas.

SM: What makes McCarran's passenger traffic different from other airports'?

Walker: We're actually the second-busiest origin-and-destination airport in the world, after Los Angeles International. Most of the passengers arriving in Las Vegas are not going on to somewhere else—we don't have a lot of "hubbing" travel. But, in terms of passenger flow, McCarran is the fifth-busiest airport in the U.S., after Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, and Los Angeles.

SM: Did you, a Las Vegas native, ever anticipate that Vegas would grow as fast as it has?

Walker: I don't think anybody ever anticipated it. The next wave comes, and everyone says, "Oh, it should slow down for a while," but it never does. At the airport, our goal is to be prepared for growth as it comes.