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Limiting jet turns could hurt LV economy

26 April 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada – If Las Vegas City Hall wins its battle to restrict how jets fly into and out of McCarran International Airport, it could ultimately cost the Las Vegas economy more than $281 million annually by reducing the capacity of the airport.

Randall Walker, director of the Clark County Department of Aviation, says if a right turn departure option for aircraft is eliminated, it would shrink the capacity of the airport by roughly 1 million arrivals and departures annually by 2012, a reduction of about 2 percent, which translates to about 375,000 visitors.

Add it up and the result is about $281.3 million in nongaming economic impact, not to mention the intangible impact of passengers spending more time cooped up in idling airplanes.

"An increasing number of people who come to town to fill these hotel rooms come by air," Walker said during an interview Wednesday afternoon.

Flight paths at McCarran have been the subject of noisy debate and legal fights since the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorized departing jets to resume making right-hand turns. The decision riled residents in the northwest part of the city who say the jets disrupt neighborhood calm.

The outcry erupted from a decision by the FAA to restore the right turn option for jets flying west out of McCarran beginning March 20. Residents living beneath the right turn directed their outrage toward the Las Vegas City Council, prompting council members to authorize spending up to $400,000 on a legal challenge to reverse or modify the decision.

Other residents complained the council has little chance for success and only decided to fight because the people who oppose the right turn live in politically influential neighborhoods.

Mayor Oscar Goodman says it is a matter of safety.

"Nobody in a position of authority has said, to a moral certainty, that it is as safe" as the pre-right turn flight departures, Goodman said.

The city's consultant, Williams Aviation, has said there are concerns about conflicts between flights making the right turn and North Las Vegas Airport and Nellis Air Force Base.

"It'll be up to a court to decide who to believe. Whether our expert is right, or an anonymous FAA official is right," Goodman said.

The FAA has disputed that there are any safety issues with the new flight path.

Walker said Wednesday that the FAA's No. 1 concern is safety and there is appropriate separation between all aircraft.

Williams Aviation is headed by George Williams who retired as the air traffic division manager for the Western Pacific Region, which includes California, Arizona and Nevada.

Councilman Steve Wolfson, whose ward covers many of those who have complained about the flight path, said there should be a compromise.

"This has been such a harsh and brutal blow to thousands of people's quality of life," he said. "It seems premature to institute in 2007 something that won't have an immediate effect."

He called for county and FAA officials to sit down with the city and talk about a compromise, such as restricting the flights to between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. Currently, most complaints point to flights that start at 6 a.m. and go as late as 1 a.m.

"There has to be some sort of middle ground that reasonable people will reach," he said.

Clark County Manager Virginia Valentine joined Walker to speak out on the issue and combat what they said was misinformation on the issue.

Included in their presentation was an estimate that losing the right-hand turn would reduce the sustainable capacity of the airport to 52 million arrivals and departures.

"At 2012, we are done," said Valentine of the projected date the airport would reach 53 million arrivals and departures. "That is all the capacity you can get out of these runways."

Walker also made it plain that complaints about the right turn to the county's noise complaint hot line would have no impact on the FAA's decision. He said there is no "review period," which the city has told constituents.

According to models Walker presented, about 33 percent of jets flying west out of McCarran use the right turn option compared to just 5 percent between 2001 and 2007 when the FAA required special permission to use the maneuver.

Without the right turn option, average departure delays at McCarran would increase gradually from today's time of 3.92 minutes to 4.59 minutes when the airport reaches capacity. Taxi and idle time would increase from an average of 15.54 minutes to 16.46 minutes, according to airport estimates.

Most people wouldn't notice much difference on individual flights, but over the course of a day the time would add up to more than 33 hours of delays.

"I wouldn't be able to stand out on my veranda and see it," Walker said. "Each delay issue is going to add considerable delay to the whole system."

The capacity reduction of 1 million arrivals and departures equals 500,000 passengers. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority estimates about 75 percent of air passengers are visitors and the remainder are locals or people making connecting flights. Each Las Vegas tourist generates about $750 in nongaming economic impact. The potential economic loss of $281.3 million is a multiplication of 375,000 visitors by $750 in spending. Trade show and convention visitors spend more than $750, but represent just 15 percent to 16 percent of visitor traffic. The difference wasn't included in the estimate.

The cumulative impact concerns resort operators who want to maintain occupancy rates and continue to add to Las Vegas' existing inventory of about 133,000 hotel rooms.

MGM Mirage spokesman Alan Feldman criticized the City Council for bending to the will of a few outspoken residents to the detriment of the local economy. MGM Mirage is Southern Nevada's biggest hotel operator with 10 properties on the Strip and the $7.4 billion CityCenter resort under development.

"A couple dozen residents are drumming up a dust storm at council meetings and the council is responding for purely political reasons," said Feldman, who also said he has lived under the right turn path. "It was never remotely as bad as some of the overly dramatic presentations would make it seem."

Review-Journal writer David McGrath Schwartz contributed to this report.