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Jennifer Robison

Designs for Terminal 3 Near

11 September 2006

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Those multibillion-dollar megaresorts on the Strip get all the attention.

But in the next half a decade, it's a massive building project at McCarran International Airport that millions of visitors to Las Vegas will see first when they arrive.

Planners are wrapping up designs of McCarran's $1.7 billion Terminal 3, and contractors are busy preparing to shift Russell Road north to accommodate the addition. When work on the terminal is complete in spring 2011, officials say, passengers using the airport will enjoy more elbow room.

Terminal 3 won't significantly boost the gate count at McCarran: It will bring on just 14 gates to supplement the 95 gates already online at the airport.

What the terminal will add, however, are ticketing counters, passenger drop-off and pick-up curbs, baggage-claim carousels and a dedicated roadway system. Two new parking garages -- one for fliers and one for McCarran employees -- are also on tap as part of the expansion. A tram will connect the new terminal to the existing Terminal 1 so fliers can opt for ticketing and baggage-checking at either location.

The result should be more efficiencies for the airport and its customers, said Rosemary Vassiliadis, deputy director of the Clark County Department of Aviation, the agency that oversees McCarran.

"Right now, 44 million passengers a year have to go through the same path of travel (at McCarran)," Vassiliadis said. "We have one departure curve, one linear ticketing area, one arrivals area and one front door. Everyone has that one funnel to go through. Terminal 3 will split them more economically, so travel through the airport should be smoother for everyone all the way around."

Site work -- grading, realigning Russell northward and relocating utilities under Russell -- is under way at McCarran's northwestern edge, adjacent to the economy lot.

Designs of the terminal are 65 percent finished, Vassiliadis said, with completion of design work scheduled for the first quarter. The project will go out for bid in 2007, with steel emerging from the ground in the first quarter of 2008. Though completion of Terminal 3 isn't planned until 2011, the garages should open in late 2008 or early 2009.

McCarran customers will feel the effects of the addition long before it's finished.

McCarran's economy-parking lot, just east of the airport on Russell, will close right after the holidays and move to an undetermined location. Vassiliadis said airport officials are negotiating for replacement space, and they will launch a publicity blitz to inform drivers of the new lot after it's selected.

Vassiliadis said economy parking was the only current airport function that construction of Terminal 3 would affect.

Terminal 3 is the largest chunk of an overall $2.4 billion improvement blueprint that will carry the airport through its 2011 capacity target of 53 million passengers.

On Tuesday, the Clark County Commission awarded McCarthy Building Cos. a contract worth nearly $110 million to build nine gates in the northwest wing of the D Gates. Also under construction are a $21.5 million expansion of the security checkpoints at the C Gates and a $42 million bridge connecting the B and C concourses.

Upon build-out, McCarran will have a total of 118 gates.

McCarran has secured $1 billion in financing for Terminal 3 through county bonds, and will tap into that money from 2008 to 2010 at an interest rate averaging 3.6 percent. The remaining $700 million will come from variable-rate bonds issued after 2008.

A combination of bonds, passenger-use fees and increased concession sales will finance upgrades of the airport's B, C and D gates.

Adam Pilarski, senior vice president of Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm Avitas, said McCarran's growth is unusual among big-city airports. Most aviation expansions today are happening at secondary airports in large cities or primary airports in smaller communities, he said.

McCarran's spate of building projects indicates Las Vegas' insatiable thirst for new visitors, Pilarski said.

"Las Vegas is definitely one of the largest generators of passengers in the country and in the world," he said. "If Las Vegas wants to continue growing, it needs more and more passengers. Apparently, (aviation officials) believe the future will lead to more people flying to Las Vegas."

Texas-based aviation consultant David Swieringa agreed.

"Traffic at McCarran has been growing very rapidly because of the growth in the entertainment industry in Las Vegas," Swieringa said. "You need the facilities to handle the added passengers."

Both Pilarski and Swieringa said easing passenger flow through McCarran is essential to preserving the city's visitor base. Shorter lines for curb-side check ins, ticketing and passenger drop-offs will pay dividends in greater customer satisfaction, and up the odds that fliers will return to McCarran.

"People care about time -- how long it takes to get through your system," Pilarski said. "People don't want to be at the airport. They want to get in and get out, so anything that improves the efficiency of moving people through the airport is a good idea."

Swieringa said security delays resulting from a foiled plot to blow up trans-Atlantic flights into America have led fliers along the East Coast to switch from the air to road trips when traveling less than 400 miles.

That effect is unlikely to reach West Coast airports anytime soon because major Western cities are more spread out than Eastern cities and are often accessible only via air, he said. But the trend highlights the premium travelers place on convenience.

Vassiliadis said McCarran already has a track record for traveler comfort, given the No. 1 ranking consumer-research firm J.D. Power and Associates gave it in June for overall passenger satisfaction among the nation's large airports.

"We strive for good customer service because we are still a discretionary destination," she said. "People don't have to come here. We know that. We don't want the airport experience to be so horrific that they won't come back. Terminal 3 will assist us in keeping that (J.D. Power ranking)."

McCarran won't thrive on pleasing passengers alone, though, Swieringa said.

Airlines must also fit service to the airport into their business models. He said many airports pay off construction bonds by raising the landing fees and terminal rents airlines must pay to use the facilities. Those charges are among the fastest-rising costs airlines face; given the fiscal turbulence that has buffeted the flying industry over the last five years, resistance to higher fees could be stiff, he said.

In a May 2005 hearing before the Clark County Commission to seek approval for McCarran's $2.4 billion expansion plan, the airport's executives said they would raise the per-passenger fees they charge to airlines from $4.50 to about $6 by 2011. The new rate would still be lower than the national average, as well as costs at other destinations such as Denver, Miami and San Francisco.

Airline representatives said it was too early to determine how Terminal 3 might affect their operations at McCarran.

"Additional gate space is a good thing, so we're following (construction) really closely," said Morgan Durrant, a spokesman for US Airways, which ranks No. 2 in flights into and out of McCarran.

McCarran's No. 1 carrier, Southwest Airlines, didn't comment on the airport's expansion before press time.