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Chris Jones

McCarran Hits New Heights: 40 Million Travelers in a Year

20 December 2004

LAS VEGAS -- A Christmas gift of sorts arrived a few days early at McCarran International Airport, which this weekend unwrapped an accomplishment few other U.S. airports can claim: 40 million passengers in one year.

Officials with the Clark County Aviation Department estimate the Las Vegas airport topped that threshold late Saturday or early Sunday, easily eclipsing a former 12-month record of nearly 36.9 million arriving and departing travelers set four years ago.

And with two of the busiest holiday periods still to come, McCarran should pad its numbers significantly during the year's final 12 days. Daily passenger counts routinely top 100,000 during peak periods, so it's not improbable that 2004 will end with nearly 41 million passengers served.

"We were anticipating strong growth, but this was much more than we had projected when we sat down ... to plan our employee loads and how we'd handle our year," Clark County Aviation Director Randall Walker said.

"It's indicative of what's happened to our town in terms of tourism volume," he added, citing record interest in the local hotel, casino and trade show industries.

Last year, only four U.S. airports reported more than 40 million passengers, according to the Airports Council International-North America, a Washington-based trade group. They were Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson (79 million); Chicago O'Hare (69.5 million); Los Angeles International (54.9 million); and Dallas-Fort Worth (53.2 million).

McCarran ranked seventh in 2003, also trailing Denver International's 37.5 million and Phoenix Sky Harbor's 37.4 million.

However, five of 2003's six busiest airports are either hubs for major carriers (Delta in Atlanta; United in Chicago and Denver; and American in Dallas-Fort Worth) or key international gateways (Chicago and Los Angeles).

Only Phoenix, which like McCarran is a hub for the smaller Southwest and America West airlines, has a business model that's similar to the one in Las Vegas, which relies primarily on travelers starting or ending trips rather than passing through on the way to another destination.

"Our hubbing percentage will end the year around 12 percent to 14 percent, which is high for us but nothing compared to some other places," Walker said, explaining that McCarran usually connects only 8 percent of its passengers.

By contrast, Atlanta connects about 60 percent of its passengers, while O'Hare and Dallas-Forth Worth routinely connect about half of theirs.

Even without a megaresort debut to boost local visits, Las Vegas' travel industry, and its airport, has enjoyed an unprecedented run since late last year. In 2004, its efforts to attract more foreign and business travelers coincided favorably with industrywide trends, said Cathy Keefe, spokeswoman for the Washington-based Travel Industry Association of America.

The U.S. Department of Commerce expects that inbound international traffic will increase 7.5 percent to 43 million visitors this year.

Almost on cue, Las Vegas in March added four weekly flights from Manila, Philippines, (by way of Vancouver, British Columbia) operated by Philippine Airlines, and a fourth weekly London flight by Virgin Atlantic Airways. In October, Derby, England-based bmi added thrice-weekly nonstop service to and from England's Manchester International, further expanding this city's overseas reach.

Business travel should increase by 4 percent this year, its first annual gain since 1998, Keefe said. Convention travel has been the strongest part of the sector, and Las Vegas last year became home to three of the nation's largest convention centers.

Leisure travel, a Las Vegas staple, also rebounded in 2004, and Keefe said McCarran probably benefited from bargain-hunting guests.

"People are more confident about flying, discretionary spending is up, and when it comes to Las Vegas, there are a lot of great deals out there," Keefe said. "I suspect a lot of people felt like they couldn't afford not to go there this year."