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Chris Jones

McCarran Changes Might Prevent Repeat of 2004 Logjam

4 January 2005

Last year's International Consumer Electronics Show will be remembered as the Year of the Long Lines.

But local tourism leaders said Monday they are optimistic several changes will enable this week's expected 129,000 convention attendees to fly off this weekend without a reprise of the lines that 12 months ago clogged security checkpoints at McCarran International Airport.

Still, if delays occur, computer and electronics aficionados at Las Vegas' biggest annual trade show, which runs Thursday through Sunday, will have something new to while away the minutes: a free, wireless Internet connection.

"We're rather optimistic that we're going to have some large crowds and lines that are a little longer than a normal Sunday, but they're certainly going to be manageable," Clark County Aviation Director Randall Walker said. "You'll never know until it's over, but we certainly have all of the physical things in place."

On Jan. 11, the final day of CES 2004, tens of thousands of outbound conventioneers jammed McCarran's then-25 security lanes.

Some said they waited up to three hours before clearing the checkpoints, delays the Transportation Security Administration said were worsened by a prevalence of personal electronic devices carried by CES' gadget-friendly crowd.

Once word of the long lines reached the trade show floor, others rushed to the airport several hours before their scheduled departures, causing added delays for those with earlier flights.

When similar delays occurred over February's Valentine's Day-Presidents Day weekend, officials started structural and technological changes to alleviate or avoid slowdowns.

They included August's addition of seven lanes and 19,000 square feet of queuing space at the checkpoints and October's debut of star-studded videos that teach travelers how to reduce slowdowns at the magnetometer and X-ray.

And McCarran's latest technological upgrade soon could improve customer service at one of the five or so U.S. airports that probably handled more than 40 million annual passengers in 2004.

Starting today, McCarran is officially offering visitors high-speed wireless Internet access throughout the airport. The service has been available for about two months, but airport officials were reluctant to publicize it until the system was tested.

While many Las Vegas locations -- including CES' primary home, the Las Vegas Convention Center -- charge patrons to access Wi-Fi connections through third-party providers, McCarran will offer its service free, Samuel Ingalls, Clark County's assistant director of aviation, information systems, said Monday.

Wi-Fi -- wireless fidelity -- has the potential to benefit "back of the house" operations at McCarran including ticketing passengers while still in line or sorting out baggage concerns on the airport's tarmac.

One of Wi-Fi's first business applications at the airport will put personal digital assistant devices in the hands of wheelchair runners to ensure they are able to meet disabled guests in a timely manner, Ingalls said.

"They won't have to rely as much on radios," he said. "I really don't think we, or our tenants, have thought of all the potential applications wireless is going to bring."

The Clark County Aviation Department spent $70,000 on the 21 Wi-Fi radios, additional hardware and software needed to run its wireless Internet service.

Most of the money was paid to Aruba Wireless Networks of Sunnyvale, Calif., Ingalls said.

With CES in mind, McCarran staff members developed an off-airport traveler awareness initiative with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which markets the city's trade show industry, and the Consumer Electronics Association, the Arlington, Va.-based producer of CES.

"Savvy Traveler" brochures with airport check-in tips were posted online and mailed to CES registrants, Authority Director of Convention Sales Chris Meyer said Monday.

The forms will be redistributed when delegates pick up their show badges and will be widely available on the trade show floor, he said.

"After what happened last year, we don't want to leave anything to chance," Meyer said.