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Chris Jones

McCarran Forced to Pick Up Pace

30 August 2004

Like the oceans' tides, zits on a teenager or the ax-wielding villain in a low-grade horror flick, Las Vegas' visitors just keep coming back for more.

But unlike those other examples of destructive persistency, the only things local visitors seem to wreck with frequency are record books and long-term growth schedules of this city's airport.

Each month this year, McCarran International Airport has posted best-ever monthly passenger totals, including July's nearly 3.7 million, which pushed aside March's record as the busiest single-month in McCarran's 56-year history.

That performance, as well as strong numbers late last year, have airport leaders looking at ways to speed up several planned expansions needed to meet the expected prolonged growth in local aviation.

"We need to figure out a way to get that done a bit faster or squeeze more than we anticipated at our existing facilities," Randy Walker, Clark County aviation director, said Friday after a ceremony that marked the debut of seven new security lanes. "Our challenge is to know when to pull the strings."

McCarran's next expansion, a 10-gate addition to the D concourse, will open early next year. Beyond that, its growth is largely dependent on timely completion of Terminal 3, a 16-gate, full-service complex to be built near Russell Road east of the airport's current buildings.

Terminal 3 is scheduled to open in mid-2009, but Walker said his staff is evaluating the costs and benefits of an accelerated schedule that could require construction crews to work extra shifts.

Walker said growth in passenger counts have this year doubled expectations, forcing his staff to consider options that would have seemed preposterous only a few months ago.

"A year ago I would have said we'd go forward with our master plan on schedule, but I'd have said that tentatively," Walker said. "Now I wish we'd thought about speeding it up six months ago."

Through the first seven months of 2004, McCarran handled more than 24 million arriving and departing travelers, up 15 percent from the same span a year ago and on pace to shatter 2000's best-ever count of nearly 36.87 million. Airport leaders had projected 8 percent growth.

Walker said a request for bids to design Terminal 3 could go out next month. Two years ago, the project was estimated to cost $750 million.

There is a fine balance when determining when to expand McCarran, Walker said. Building too early could upset carriers asked to absorb increased airport fees before their loads are large enough to absorb the higher costs; building too late could result in backups that stymie growth in Southern Nevada's tourism industry.

"Trying to anticipate the growth here is literally staggering," said Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., who with the three other members of Nevada's congressional delegation pledged his continued support for McCarran's growth plans Friday.

Because McCarran cannot add to its four runways, it will never be able to process more than 55 million passengers per year, regardless of changes to its terminals. Coupled with maintenance and other issues that could periodically close portions of the airport, Walker said the McCarran's capacity is closer to 53 million travelers per year.