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Best of Benjamin Spillman
Benjamin Spillman
 

Make way for bags

23 July 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- When Kelly Deal visits Las Vegas, she likes to spend her time on the Strip or Fremont Street -- not cramming her body through crowds at the baggage claim at McCarran International Airport.

"There is no good traffic flow, especially if you have a rolling bag carry-on," said Deal, 34, of Roxboro, N.C.

Slot machines in the aisles between baggage carousels and hordes of travelers anxious to begin their Las Vegas vacations contribute to the luggage-claim chaos.

"If you get there late at night, you are so tired you don't want to deal with the hassle," she said.

Fortunately for Deal and more than 23 million others who arrive and depart McCarran each year, the Clark County Department of Aviation is embarking on a construction project that should alleviate baggage claim headaches.

Workers this month began a $12 million project that will increase the capacity of eight of 16 Terminal 1 baggage carousels 18 percent, improve the flow of foot traffic and install new signs to make it easier for passengers to find their bags.

The renovation is one of several improvements in recent months aimed at improving the flow of baggage -- and people -- through McCarran, an airport that could reach its maximum capacity within 10 years. Even with a new 14-gate terminal scheduled to open in 2011, airport officials are pushing for a new airport that could be built by about 2017 to augment McCarran.

Other improvements in the meantime include a program that uses radio frequency transmitters to track luggage. McCarran is one of two airports in the world that uses the tags. Hong Kong's airport is the other. The aviation department also installed a $150 million system of automatic explosive detection devices that replace sport utility vehicle-size screening devices in the airport concourse that sprung up in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The federal government paid 75 percent of the cost.

When the latest baggage claim renovation is complete in early 2009, the upgraded carousels will each be able to handle up to 3,128 bags at a time, an increase of 18 percent from the current capacity of 2,640.

"We'll probably be able to put more flights on one carousel than we currently can," airport spokeswoman Elaine Sanchez said. "Those people who are waiting for their bags will be able to retrieve their bags faster and we'll be able to process the next flight faster."

Construction on the project started July 5. Funding comes from a variety of sources for airport construction that includes everything from fees the aviation department charges passengers and airlines to revenue from parking, slot machines and advertising, Sanchez said.

"Anybody who uses the airport usually pays for construction costs. We do not use any local taxes," she said.

Besides increasing the capacity of the carousels, workers will broaden and brighten the space around the baggage claims. They will install new flooring and tear out rental car counters that were abandoned earlier this year when the aviation department opened a new rental car center near the airport. There will also be new monitors that should make it easier to identify which carousel has bags from a particular flight, Sanchez said.

"It is a huge undertaking," she said.

Whether Deal and millions of others like her will take notice remains to be seen. The lure of Las Vegas tends to overshadow the scene at McCarran, which probably means airport operators are doing their jobs.

"Sometimes it is frustrating," Deal said of the airport. "Usually I am so happy to be in Vegas I don't worry about it."