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Ask Mr. Sun: How airlines, McCarran are affected by a presidential visit

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Steve Marcus

Air Force One touches down at McCarran International Airport on Sunday, Sept. 30, 2012.

Updated Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012 | 12:25 p.m.

Air Force One

Air Force One comes in for a landing at McCarran International Airport Monday Oct. 24, 2011. Launch slideshow »

Map of McCarran International Airport

McCarran International Airport

Paradise Road, Las Vegas

It’s nice of the president of the United States to visit Las Vegas as often as he does, but doesn’t he cause a bit of disruption at McCarran International Airport each time he drops in?

Well, pardner, you’re right about that — President Barack Obama does seem to have a hankering for these parts. He’s flown into Southern Nevada six times this year — make that seven after Wednesday night’s drop-in.

Each time the president lands in that beautiful airship of ours, and again when he takes off, the air space around McCarran is closed for 30 to 45 minutes. Not only are aircraft told to keep their distance, but all airport workers on the ground — including the good folks handling baggage, fueling, food deliveries and the like — are told to go indoors until they get the all-clear from the Secret Service and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Airlines are given notice by the Federal Aviation Administration when there is “VIP” air traffic expected that day and generally what time of day. While no one makes specific reference to Air Force One, everyone knows with a wink just like mine that they’re talking about presidential travel.

Later, when the flight times of the VIP are better nailed down, airlines are notified and make appropriate accommodations. For long-haul flights — such as those scheduled to take off before the president’s flight times are specifically known — planes are given extra fuel to fly around until they get the all-clear to land; on closer flights — say, from Los Angeles or Phoenix, and when Air Force One’s schedule is better known before flights would take off — boarding of Las Vegas-bound aircraft would be delayed to avoid arriving before the airspace is opened.

Similarly, flights departing McCarran have to adjust accordingly: They’re held on the ground as Air Force One — er, VIP traffic — approaches. If an aircraft happens to push back just before airspace is closed, it would have to twiddle its thumbs until the president lands, shakes hands and leaves the airport in his motorcade. (The same freeze occurs when the president’s motorcade returns to McCarran for departure.)

There’s a possibility that a delayed flight out of McCarran could cause a passenger to miss a connection at the next airport, but our friends at Southwest, which is McCarran’s most active airline, say agents do their best to hold a flight at the next stop or find another flight to accommodate the VIP-delayed passenger.

Do these delays frustrate passengers? “Passengers get annoyed with any sort of delay, but once they know it’s the president, they realize there’s nothing that anyone can do about it,” Southwest spokeswoman Michelle Agnew said. “And then they figure, 'Hey, maybe we can get a glimpse of Air Force One.'”

CORRECTION: The column has been updated to reflect that President Obama has come to Southern Nevada seven times, but he did not fly into McCarran for each of those visits. | (October 23, 2012)

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