Tuesday, May 31, 2011 | 1:54 p.m.
Las Vegas has seen a lot of changes in the last 30 years, but McCarran International Airport has been relying on the same air traffic control tower for almost that long.
In 1983, more than 12 million people visited Las Vegas, with 10 million of them arriving on 140,000 flights to McCarran. Last year, more than 37 million people visited Las Vegas arriving on more than 500,000 flights to McCarran, making it the eighth busiest airport in the nation.
But the old air traffic tower will soon be history, replaced by a new facility that, at 352 feet, will be one of the tallest in the nation.
The Federal Aviation Administration broke ground Tuesday on the $99 million tower, which will open in 2015 in the area between the under-construction Terminal 3 and the Airport Connector Tunnel.
“This tower will be a significant milestone for the airport when it opens,” said Randall Walker, the county’s director of aviation, who has overseen the airport for about 10 years.
The current tower isn’t just old, it’s also crowded, Walker said. And as air traffic increases at McCarran, the problem is only going to get worse.
The FAA said it expects McCarran to have 700,000 flights annually by 2020.
Plus, the old tower has a blind spot; controllers can’t see part of the airfield.
The new tower will be taller – 352 feet instead of the current 200 feet – and will have a clean view of the area around the airport, as well as 14-foot-tall windows without support beams getting in the way.
“This new facility is going to enhance our ability of our air traffic controller workforce to maintain the highest levels of safety on the airport surface and in the skies above it here in Las Vegas,” said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt.
The cab of the tower -- which will be 850 square feet instead of the current 525 square feet -- will have two areas, one for ground controllers to monitor planes, mechanics, cargo and other activities on the ground; and one for air controllers.
The tower will be just one part of the facility. A 52,800-square-foot building will house offices, training simulators and equipment. The old tower has a 13,740-square-foot building for that purpose.
The tower will also have the latest technology, Babbitt said.
“This tower is going to have, as all new towers will have, the ability to use not only the old, while it lasts, but transition seamlessly to the new technology as it comes available,” Babbitt said. “This tower will have the top of everything.”
The upgrade will become a piece of the national air safety system, Babbitt said.
“This is an important day for Las Vegas, certainly, but it’s an important day for the whole nation,” he said. “Investments in air traffic control facilities are vital to help the nation’s air transportation system. This air transportation system keeps the nation on the move, literally on the move.”
The construction of the building itself will cost $45 million and will take until summer 2013, but the instillation of equipment will add considerable cost and take another year, officials said.
“It’s not like just putting in one or two phone lines. It’s a very complex array of equipment that goes in,” Babbitt said.
The result will be increased efficiency, allowing the airport’s runways to handle more traffic in less time. “We’ll be able to put more traffic in here, more safely,” he said.
The construction will provide about 300 jobs, a fact praised by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who attended the groundbreaking.
Reid said he remembers working at the old McCarran Field during the summer before he went to law school. He did “essential work,” like picking up trash, he said.
About half of the funding for the tower is coming from a congressional earmark for the project, Reid said.
Clark County Commissioner Mary Beth Scow, who represents the area that includes the airport, also said the sight of construction workers was good news.
“I think it means a lot to our community,” she said.
Once the new tower is being used, the old one eventually will be torn down, but the building at the base will likely stay, possibly for use by an airline for offices, Walker said.