Las Vegas Sun

October 15, 2018

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International tourism fuels expansion at airport

Harry Kassap spends 110 nights a year traveling the globe to tout Las Vegas to overseas government agencies and airline carriers.

His five years' worth of work have paid off -- so much so that he has Aviation Director Randy Walker scrambling to create more space at McCarran International Airport to accommodate international flights.

"It's a good problem to have," said Kassap, the airport's administrator of market development. "I don't think anyone would have predicted we would have come this far this fast."

Kassap joined McCarran about five years ago when Las Vegas decided to begin aggressive marketing tactics overseas. So far he has landed direct flights from Mexico and Japan.

But perhaps most rewarding was that years of wooing British authorities and Virgin Atlantic Airlines finally paid off last year when the airline began a direct route from London to Las Vegas.

"If I could ever express in words the feeling when the inaugural flight landed in Las Vegas," Kassap said, "I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. The sense of accomplishment was overwhelming."

Walker is probably experiencing similar emotions.

Because international travel has grown far more rapidly than expected, the airport announced this week it will add a $200 million terminal to its construction plans for the next decade.

By 2012, the airport expects to spend more than $1.5 billion on two new terminals and two additional wings at the airport's D Gates. When the entire project is completed, the airport will be able to accommodate 55 million passengers a year with a total of 135 gates.

Charter airlines will move into the newly planned terminal -- Terminal 4 -- in 2005, leaving the eight-gate Terminal 2 to handle international flights only.

"Our runways right now allow us to handle 55 million passengers, but we don't have anywhere to put them once they're here," said McCarran spokeswoman Hilarie Grey.

Airport officials expected Terminal 3 -- to be built north of the D Gates by 2007 -- to add 20 gates and handle any increase in visitors. But because six gates will be built for bigger and wider overseas aircraft, like 747's, and the fact 737's are now built with wider wingspans, the terminal can only hold 13 gates.

Walker is confident the new construction is imperative, but he conceded that assuming the number of passengers will continue to increase is a gamble. His task is to provide quality customer service without overbuilding.

"One of our goals is not to be an impediment to growth," Walker said. "But we don't want to build facilities we don't need because it's expensive and could drive up the cost for visitors."

The two places Walker keeps a close eye on are the Strip and his parking garage. The airport has developed basic methods it applies to those two locations to determine when it might need to expand.

Since mostly valley residents use the parking garage, Walker knows the population of local air travelers is increasing when parking spaces are difficult to find.

The formula for the Strip is simple: Each new hotel room translates into 350 more passengers passing through McCarran every year.

For those who keep track of the tourism rate in Las Vegas, that means the last two hotel-casinos to open -- the Aladdin and Paris -- have brought an additional 2 million passengers into the airport.

Walker is one who keeps track, or at least does the best he can.

"I'd wish the developers would tell us sooner (about projects), but I guess they don't trust us," Walker said. "Once we find out, we have to say, 'We have the capacity' or 'We better do something.'

"If we waited absolutely for hotels to announce, we'd be a year behind. We keep our ear to the ground."

If tourism numbers fall drastically in the future, the airport will adjust its construction plans -- including those to build a second airport in Ivanpah 30 miles south of Las Vegas.

The Ivanpah airport, which was planned to relieve McCarran should tourism continue to rise, is expected to be completed by 2010. Grey said that, like the additional two wings in the D Gates, the Ivanpah schedule is flexible.

What the airport can likely count on, however, is Kassap.

While Walker is eyeing growth on the resort corridor, Kassap is keeping in touch with countries renegotiating their bilateral air transport agreements with the United States.

The treaties establish regulatory mechanisms for commercial airlines, allowing them to fly direct into cities agreed upon.

Kassap monitors which country's citizens make the most trips to Las Vegas, and he begins establishing relationships with those governments. While Kassap offered no hints on which airline might offer direct flights in the future, he said he has been working closely with officials in Thailand and Hong Kong.

"It's all about relationship-building," he said. "You can't do this job from behind a desk."