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Chris Jones

Travel and Tourism: Quickened Airport Plan OK'D

18 May 2005

Clark County leaders on Tuesday approved a $2.4 billion plan to complete McCarran International Airport's long-awaited build-out by 2011, approximately three years earlier than previously anticipated.

"We need to have our facilities in place to allow the passengers to come as the community grows," Clark County Aviation Director Randall Walker told his bosses on the Clark County Commission Tuesday.

Approximately 47 percent of last year's record 37.4 million local visitors traveled here by plane, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority said recently. Local travel leaders hope to increase visitation to 43 million by 2009, with approximately half of those guests slated to arrive by air.

The local population, which the U.S. Census estimated increased by nearly 20 percent from 2000 to 2004, is also a factor in the airport's expedited expansion. Residents of Southern Nevada and its nearby environs last year accounted for approximately 12 percent of McCarran's record 12-month passenger count of nearly 41.5 million, Walker said. And as more people settle here, locals' airport use is also expected to rise.

To reach its capacity of 53 million arriving and departing passengers by 2011, Walker called for several changes to the airport's master plan, which was unveiled five years ago. They include:

Expediting construction of the northwest wing of the D-gates concourse, which would add eight passenger gates at a cost of approximately $180 million. Plans previously called for this wing to be McCarran's final expansion project.

"We can get it done a lot faster than (the proposed) Terminal 3," Walker said of the northwest wing, which he hopes to open in mid-2008.

Building the $1.6 billion Terminal 3 in one phase rather than two. Its opening in mid-2010 would give McCarran 14 additional gates, including six designated for international travelers.

Once Terminal 3 opens, McCarran would reach its build-out point with 117 gates. McCarran's four runways could not support further growth without major disruptions to the Sunset Road area, a step Walker said is neither practical nor feasible.

Building the $21.5 million C-gates security checkpoint expansion and $42 million bridge linking the B and C concourses. Both would allow Southwest and America West airlines, the airport's two largest carriers, to expand local service.

The commission did not vote on Walker's proposal, though Chairman Rory Reid gave Walker a go-ahead order with an admonition: "Sleep a little less and get it done."

Walker said McCarran will need to borrow $1.3 billion to fund his planned improvements. The rest would be paid for using airport revenues such as passenger use fees and increased concession sales.

McCarran's per-passenger fees charged to airlines would be about $5.95 in 2011, an increase from today's $4.50 level but still below rates in Denver, Miami and San Francisco.

Before his expansion update, Walker brought in an academic expert who emphasized the importance of commercial aviation to the local economy. Keith Schwer, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, told the board McCarran and its smaller sister airports generate an estimated economic impact of nearly $28 billion in Clark County each year.

That includes $7.28 billion in primary spending, as well as $20.59 billion in "spin-off" spending, said Schwer, whose information was developed through surveys of airport tenants, local residents, the convention authority and other area businesses.

"We can account for full- and part-time employment impact associated with the airport of 426,000 employees' jobs in Clark County," Schwer said.

The UNLV survey was commissioned by the aviation department as part of larger study that cost $60,000, airport spokeswoman Elaine Sanchez said Tuesday. She added that Schwer's research adhered to standardized criteria as outlined by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Aviation's economic impact on Southern Nevada was last examined in 1990. That year, a similar study revealed an estimated annual impact of $17.6 billion. Records show McCarran in 1990 handled approximately 19 million passengers, or less than half of last year's total.

Separately, Walker said several projects under way should also relieve congestion at McCarran, including a $125 million in-line baggage screening system near the A and B concourses. That improvement, funded largely by the federal government, will free space in ticketing areas now occupied by several truck-sized explosive screening devices.