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Jennifer Robison

Las Vegas' airport rates high in survey

21 May 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Flying can really bite these days.

Airlines fly fewer runs, planes swell with some of their highest passenger counts ever and tickets cost more.

But McCarran International Airport on Tuesday shrugged off troubles besetting air travel and posted big numbers in a nationwide customer-service survey.

McCarran tied with Orlando (Fla.) International Airport for second place among large airports in overall customer satisfaction in J.D. Power and Associates' North American Airport Satisfaction Study.

Only Philadelphia International Airport bested McCarran in the survey, which J.D. Power and Associates conducted between April 2007 and May.

McCarran claimed the highest survey scores of any big airport in check-in and baggage-check processes and airport accessibility, said Jim Gaz, J.D. Power's senior director of travel and entertainment. Check-in and baggage-check questions ask fliers to assess the ease of finding checking spots, and the cleanliness of areas where passengers check in for flights. Accessibility looks at parking, traffic flow through an airport, signs, drop-off ease and attractiveness of airport grounds.

Rosemary Vassiliadis, deputy director of aviation for Clark County, said McCarran's managers emphasize customer service because fliers can always opt to visit other markets.

"We never forget that Las Vegas is a discretionary destination," Vassiliadis said. "People have to want to come to Las Vegas. McCarran is the first and last look they have of their experience here. We want it to be a good experience."

Evaluating airport satisfaction is important because airports are "huge economic engines for local commerce," Gaz said. Airports that make travel tougher could discourage fliers from returning to a market. J.D. Power and Associates' satisfaction survey gives airport managers "ammunition" when working with airlines, concessionaires, the Transportation Security Administration and other business partners to upgrade consumers' experiences, he said.

McCarran garnered the top spot among large airports -- airports hosting 30 million or more passengers a year -- in 2006. The airport fell to No. 5 in 2007, only to bounce back to No. 2 this year.

McCarran's improvement comes at a difficult time for the travel industry. It's the first year since 2002 that customer satisfaction with airports in general fell across the board, J.D. Power's data show.

Passengers tend to yolk their airline experiences to the airports they use, Gaz said, so airline woes often wend their way into consumer sentiment about airports. As airlines schedule fewer flights, fly fuller planes, charge for extra luggage and pare onboard services such as free meals, airports must please increasingly frustrated fliers, Gaz said.

Also, the rising number of flight delays can mean overcrowding inside airport amenities: longer lines at restaurants, fewer empty seats at gates, heavier restroom traffic.

"It's important for airports to recognize it's not a great environment for traveling by air, and for them to do what they can to make the process as efficient as possible," Gaz said.

McCarran's managers plan to continue adding to the airport's customer experience.

Officials are negotiating new locations for the airport's SpeedCheck Advance, a system that allows fliers to check luggage and get boarding passes before they arrive at the airport. Consumers already can find SpeedCheck Advance kiosks inside the Luxor, The Venetian, the Las Vegas Convention Center and McCarran's Consolidated Car Rental Facility.

The airport will also bring in XpresSpa, an airport spa chain that offers manicures, massages and facials. A new sit-down restaurant is coming to the D Gates, and the airport is talking with several national retailers to open McCarran outposts. Also, a new checkpoint at the C Gates will add 12 new lanes.

"We work very hard, and we're very happy our passengers acknowledge our efforts, but we'll still keep trying," Vassiliadis said.