Las Vegas Sun

August 20, 2019

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Growing pains bring expansion to local airport

X marks the spot for McCarran International Airport's Big D.

The countdown is on for the new D concourse which isn't like anything Las Vegas residents have seen before in their airports.

When the doors at the new gates open next summer, visitors will enter through a glassed-in cavern called the "great hall" where the ceiling towers 100 feet above the tiled floor. They'll have unobstructed views through massive windows to the Las Vegas skyline to the north and McCarran's east-west runways to the south.

Passengers will arrive aboard an automatic transit system that dives in 1 1/2 minutes from an elevated platform in the main terminal to a small subway station a mile and a half away at the D concourse. Upon arrival, they're immersed in technology that should take one of the nation's most advanced airports a notch higher, and amid art from some of the city's youngest mural designers.

The facility itself will be shaped like a giant X when it's completed. For the $276.2 million first phase of the project, only the southern portion of the X -- an inverted V -- will be completed. It will house 26 new gates for seven airlines. When the top of the X is added, there will be room for about 24 more gates. The price tag includes first phase construction and the tram system between it and the terminal.

"This is an immediate departure from what we've had at McCarran in the past," understated Perini Co. safety coordinator Al Brown as he led a tour through the site.

When completed, the D concourse will double the number of gates available to airlines serving the Las Vegas market. But will that translate into more passengers and, ultimately, more visitors for the city? While aviation officials are confident it will, some analysts aren't so sure.

The task of building the new concourse began in 1994 at an annual meeting of airlines that hold long-term lease agreements with the county. Randy Walker, Clark County's director of aviation, said the county, observing the steady growth of the resorts, made a proposal to expand gate and counter space at the airport.

Walker said 75 percent of the airlines transporting 75 percent of the passengers through the airport had to approve the construction plan. The airlines bought into it -- the vote was unanimous.

Since the Department of Aviation operates from an enterprise fund, the airport pays for itself and local tax dollars don't fund it. Revenues from airline leases and on-site concessions pay the bills.

The county then went about designing the project, contracting Tate & Snyder as architect for the project, and renegotiating leases for the airlines.

The airlines have identical contracts with the only variable being the amount of space occupied. Current contracts have airlines paying $69 a square foot per year on their leases.

Perini/Henderson won the general contracting bid and the Bechtel Corp. is in charge of construction management. Each of the companies has had previous experience at McCarran.

Today, the project is more than half done, with most of the steel and concrete in place and a multitude of furnishings remaining to be placed. Most of the 66,000 square feet of glass -- about half the area of one face of the Luxor pyramid -- is in place.

The windows enclose the structure's central pedestrian corridor and offer vistas that will become favorites for aviation buffs.

Along the interior periphery will be clusters of retail outlets, many grouped by theme. Several of the leases are in negotiation, but proposed retailers include a mix of companies that already have a presence at McCarran and some new stores. Among the themed retail areas are Tahoe, The McCarran Strip, Disney, Western Crossroads, Nevada Desert and The Entertainer.

Food and beverage kiosks are scattered throughout the terminal and a microbrewery is planned on site. Among the retailers with which the county is negotiating: Harley Davidson, Disney, Pizza Hut, Burger King, Bally's, Landau Hyman, TCBY and Cinnabon.

And, of course, there will be slot machines. Like the slots at the other concourses, they'll dot the facility and will provide the airport an additional revenue source.

The southwestern arm of the concourse will include an airline club facility, but a lease hasn't been signed. United is the leading candidate for occupying the area, which will offer a lounge, office facilities and other amenities for some flying customers.

The $79.2 million automatic transit system will shuttle passengers from a station near the existing security checkpoint at the C concourse to an underground terminal just outside the great hall. The security area will be expanded to serve passengers heading for the D concourse, making the new facility a "sterile" area.

The great hall will be filled with natural light, but other parts of the concourse will also be sunlit, thanks to strategically placed decorative skylights. Some of the circular skylights will be adorned with modern art.

Other artistic flair for the building has been offered by 18 students of Southern Nevada schools. A series of murals depicting the skylines of cities from around the world were drawn by fourth graders in a citywide drawing contest.

Many of the artists are now fifth graders in local schools and will soon see their murals transformed into tiled wall hangings.

Airport officials didn't forget children in the new terminal, concurring that many resorts are still committed to serving a family audience. In a seating area off the great hall, a section will be devoted to children featuring several brass reptile sculptures.

McCarran seems to have expanded as much as it is going to in the foreseeable future. Officials say they have no plans to acquire any nearby land or adjacent residences to accommodate the two phases of the D concourse.

While the new concourse is the most visible addition to McCarran, some behind-the-scenes work should improve airport operations well before next summer. The improvements are a part of the "McCarran Vision" plan being implemented by aviation director Walker.

Walker said McCarran is in the process of installing new computer software that should speed most passenger services. In an industry fond of applying cute abbreviations to complexly named systems comes CUTE -- common use terminal equipment.

Walker predicts other airports will follow McCarran with their own versions of the technology. CUTE will allow airlines to use inactive facilities at the three major customer-interaction points -- ticket counters, gates and baggage-claim carousels -- when they are busiest.

For example, if an airline has several departures within a short time span and a nearby ticket counter isn't in use, an employee can log on to the inactive computer terminal to assist passengers faster.

If a plane arrives late and the planned gate is in use, the software can help solve the problem by using a vacant gate.

Walker also said flight monitors at the new and existing concourses will be tied to a new up-to-the-minute multiple-user system that retrieves information directly from a flight tracking system. Currently, each airline must feed its own information to the system, which displays flight times to monitors and to a touch-tone telephone exchange.

With all the infrastructure and software systems on the verge of being ready, it appears Las Vegas is prepared for the next wave of visitors.

It's difficult to predict how many people will use the airport from year to year. Airport officials don't even project future counts, opting instead to base growth plans on the expansion of the resort community.

McCarran had an 8.7 percent increase in passengers to 30.5 million in 1996 and is on a pace to increase about 1 percent to around 31 million this year.

Currently, McCarran ranks as the ninth busiest airport in the nation and the 14th busiest in the world.

The airport had double-digit percentage increases in 1994, 1990 and 1986, all corresponding directly to the opening of new resorts. Since Southern Nevada is in a lull for new properties, airport officials aren't expecting another big increase until the next wave of resorts -- Bellagio, Paris, The Venetian and Circus Circus Enterprises' Project Paradise -- open their doors.

The completion of Phase I of the D concourse would boost McCarran's capacity to about 42 million passengers a year and the addition of Phase II would increase that to 55 million annually.

While McCarran could move up a few notches in the world rankings, it probably will never crack the top five in the world -- currently held by Chicago's O'Hare International (69 million passengers in 1996), Atlanta's Hartfield Airport (63 million), Dallas-Fort Worth (58 million), Los Angeles International (57 million) and London's Heathrow Airport (56 million).

But not everybody is convinced that just because the airport is ready that visitors will come.

Dave Ehlers, a gaming analyst with Las Vegas Investment Advisors, who has also followed the airline industry, is one of the critics.

"Las Vegas has assumed that 'If you build it, they will come.' " said Ehlers. "They will ... if they can."

Ehlers asserts that all the improvements at the airport won't necessarily translate into increased visitor volume. He said increased volume is dependent on the airlines -- and the resort industry needs to coordinate its efforts with the carriers.

Las Vegas is not treated as a priority market by the airlines so they don't commit as many large, comfortable jets to McCarran as they could, Ehlers said.

Only a handful of airlines -- Delta, TWA and United -- offer a small percentage of flights on wide-bodied jets. Tower Air, which has an all-Boeing 747 fleet, began serving Las Vegas twice a week earlier this month, and United has added a daily 747 flight to Chicago every day through October.

It's common for airlines to change plane types seasonally to accommodate anticipated loads.

Ehlers said airlines aren't motivated to add flights to Las Vegas because revenue per available seat mile is among the lowest in the nation. That's true because of the abundance of discount carriers that operate here, a higher-than-average number of red-eye flights that offer lower fares and more low-revenue fares in general because of the high ratio of leisure travelers to business travelers.

If that happens, McCarran appears to be ready.