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Benjamin Spillman

Massive lines at McCarran leave travelers frustrated

20 February 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- When Lynn Flaherty and her family packed to head home Monday from Las Vegas, they might have expected a complimentary in-flight pillow or a bag of peanuts.

Instead they wound up in a line more than three hours long outside McCarran International Airport and were handed plastic bags to protect themselves from the rain.

"We've never had a problem like this," said Flaherty, 39, of Providence, R.I.

She was returning from a trip to watch the NBA All-Star Game with Dan Flaherty, 53, and son Dan Jr., 9.

All three wore Clark County-issued garbage bags as ponchos for protection from the wind and rain.

"If there was another All-Star Game (in Las Vegas), I'd think twice about (going)," Dan Flaherty said.

The family was among thousands stuck in a line stretching out the door from Southwest Airlines ticket counters in Terminal One, down the road and beyond the International Terminal.

Even people who arrived at the airport two hours before their departure time were in danger of missing their flights.

"We have seen long lines but not long lines like this in a while," said Elaine Sanchez, public affairs and marketing manager for the airport.

The All-Star Weekend marked the first time regular visitor Leah Butler of Los Angeles flew to Las Vegas instead of driving.

Never again, said Butler, who arrived at 11:15 a.m. for a 2:35 p.m. flight and was still outside waiting minutes before the scheduled departure.

"This is terrible," Butler said repeatedly from her spot in the line that stretched about three-quarters of a mile at its longest. "They should have anticipated this."

Airport officials estimated there were as many as 2,000 people in line outside at any given time Monday afternoon waiting to check bags for Southwest flights.

Rosemary Vassiliadis, deputy director of the Clark County Department of Aviation, said about 60,000 passengers depart daily from McCarran. About 30 percent are on Southwest.

Many of the passengers were carrying several bags, which makes the check-in procedure longer. Also, passengers who missed flights early in the day were redirected back to ticket counters, making the lines even longer for people arriving for later departures, Vassiliadis said.

And passengers getting to the airport were also calling fellow travelers to alert them to the lines, prompting even more people to come to the airport several hours before their departures, she said.

"That exacerbates the problem," Vassiliadis said.

Southwest Airlines spokeswoman Brandy King said there was no specific reason for the backlog other than a lot of people were trying to leave Las Vegas at the same time.

In addition to the NBA All-Star Game on Sunday, many others were in Southern Nevada to take advantage of the three-day Presidents Day weekend, celebrate Chinese New Year or linger after the MAGIC clothing convention that ended Friday and attracted more than 100,000 attendees.

King said the lines started building early and just kept growing as workers tried to keep up with the flow of incoming checked baggage.

"If the lines get slowed down in the morning, then that trickles down through the day," King said.

She said Southwest, the largest carrier at McCarran with about 225 flights departing daily, was fully staffed at its ticket counters and brought in extra skycaps to help process traffic. But, clearly, it wasn't enough.

"We don't have computers that tell us how long it is going to take to process each customer," King said.

Vassiliadis said the use by more passengers of remote baggage check-ins at major hotels could have alleviated the type of backlog that occurred Monday. The airport has a remote baggage check-in procedure called SpeedCheck Advance, but so far only two hotels, Luxor and The Venetian, participate, she said. The service costs $20.

"The problem we had today was passengers checking luggage; it wasn't anything else," she said.

Customer reaction to the lines was mixed. Some used words like "horrible," "hell" or worse to describe the scene.

Others were just fine with the notion of staying another day in Las Vegas.

"If I stay, it is no problem," said Jametra Harper, 30, of East Palo Alto, Calif.

Harper was two hours early for her flight, but judging by her spot in line it was questionable whether she would make the departure. She had been in Las Vegas to go to clubs and parties and possibly catch a glimpse of NBA players or celebrities.

She suggested Las Vegas hospitality in the form of beverage servers be extended to the sidewalk in front of the airport to make the line more bearable.

"That's what they need," Harper said. "Get one of those girls out here with the little cart."