KANSAS CITY — Earlier this year, Randall ‘Randy’ H. Walker, director of aviation for the Clark County Department of Aviation, was given a raise to keep him from resigning and moving into the consultant community. He likes Vegas — a native, he points out. At this year’s annual convention of the Airports Council International-North America, Walker was named the association’s chairman. He sat with AIRPORT BUSINESS to discuss the issues, both his in Las Vegas and national. Funding, at this writing and at the time of the interview, remained a moving target. Edited excerpts ...
AIRPORT BUSINESS: What’s the latest with the Las Vegas airport system?
Walker: We are working on a second airport site, which is tenatively called the Ivanpah site because that’s the name of the valley where we own the land. We’ve got close to 20,000 hotel rooms under construction, and another 20,000 that are probable. If all of those are built, that will exceed the capacity of the airport. To fill those hotel rooms, with the existing operating and ATC procedures and technology, we don’t have the capacity. We’re hoping, of course, with NextGen and the congestion management things that people are working on that we’ll get an improvement to that airspace and actually put more people through our airfield.
AB: What’s the status of the Ivanpah airport?
Walker: We’re in the environmental stage; we’re almost two years into the EIS. We have been working on the concept of a second airport for 12 years. We predict that if everything goes to plan we could have an airport operational by 2017. So, you’re talking over 20 years in this country to get a new airport online.
AB: What would happen to McCarran International?
Walker: McCarran would stay. It’s not like a Denver situation. Last year we did 46.2 million passengers; this new airport at its ultimate build-out could handle about 35 million. It’s a second airport.
AB: While getting through McCarran as a passenger can be trying at times, it is still quite impressive how you are able to reasonably flow the onslaught of people.
Walker: We have taken a lot of control with what happens. We’re a turnkey airport; we own everything — the ticket counters; the computers in the ticket counters; the furniture in the hold rooms; the jet bridges; the gate podium. The communications system is ours — everybody runs off our backbone. We’ve done that because we’ve determined that that is the most efficient way of maximizing utilization of our facilities.
AB: How much of that has to do with the fact that you do things with the revenue you get from slots?
Walker: Well, we’re financially a very stable airport. But I would [like] to have the parking revenue that other airports have.
AB: I’ve heard you talk of not wanting the Airbus A380 at McCarran. Will it be part of the Ivanpah plan?
Walker: Absolutely; we would design the airport for Group 6 aircraft. Since that airport is further away from town, we think the natural fit is the longer-haul traffic.
The problem we have with the A380 is, first, we’re not a very large aircraft market. Our airfield is not really designed to accommodate an A380 efficiently; it would be very disruptive.
I’m more excited about the 787 — a smaller, long-haul aircraft that can go to secondary markets. No longer is an airport like Las Vegas dependent upon a major hub to get customers from the East Coast.
AB: Requir-ing 100 percent screening of airport employees is a hot issue in Washington. Is your airport part of the pilot program to study the feasibility?
Walker: No. I’m not convinced that employee screening is the answer. At some level it’s important, and we do it at levels. I think that if we do employee screening and think that’s it, we’re taking a step backwards.
AB: One criticism of the idea is that it could make the screening process predictable. Your thoughts?
Walker: We’re going to make it predictable. Look, we’re going to screen a mechanic who, if he’s worth his salt, can figure out how to make an airplane malfunction and crash after it takes off. You’re screening a guy who is going to be driving a fuel truck with 5,000 gallons of jet-A in it and if he wants to do something, we don’t think he can with that kind of a weapon in his hands?
Some of it’s just nonsensical. On the other hand, the random screening that TSA has put in place is a very good thing. My biggest concern for my airport with security is 1,500 people crammed like sardines in front of the checkpoint. There’s the target for the terrorist, and we’ve created it for him.
AB: Congestion management is becoming a hot consideration, particularly in light of the focus on JFK and the Northeast. Is this one of the answers to the capacity questions?
Walker: The problems LaGuardia has are not my problems. I’ve got some congestion problems in the peak times, but I have some valleys. And what you can do at an airport that has peaks and valleys is probably different than what you can do at an airport that’s at peak all day long. So, congestion management needs to be addressed in that fashion.
What’s frustrating with my system is I have McCarran and two very nice general aviation reliever airports. Why, as an airport director, can I not manage my system to maximize the efficiency for everybody? I got single-engine piston airplanes that are still landing at McCarran, and I have perfectly good pavement that’s underutilized at my two general aviation airports. Now, why on earth at a congested airport during the peak times do we allow that to happen?
AB: At the recent NBAA convention I heard your name brought up several times as the reason that show can’t return to Vegas. Specifically, that you don’t want the Static Display at McCarran. Is that fair?
Walker: What I won’t do is take away space from another operation and give it to them for a week and tell the other guys you can’t come for a week. That’s not right.
What I did was, I went over to Henderson and pointed to a spot and said, ‘We’re not doing anything with that land. If you guys want to come in and lease it from us and build a big ramp for a static display, I’ll lease it to you.
AB: NBAA had no interest in your Henderson Airport offer?
Walker: They have not given me a response back one way or the other. Their silence, I guess, is the answer.
We offered them an alternative. I’m not going to charge my users the cost of developing that space for them. That’s not fair.
AB: Other hot issues?
Walker: One is facilitation. All of our members who have international arrivals facilities are experiencing the same problems. CBP [Customs & Border Patrol] staffing is becoming a serious problem for processing people into this country. We believe that it’s driving away customers who want to come to the United States.
AB: And, of course there’s the growing environmental issue.
Walker: For whatever reason, airports and airlines are becoming a big target on the global warming issue, and I think we need to get a better sense of that, figure out what the real issues are, and develop strategies that are relative to the issue, and not an overresponse. As an organization we need to provide some reliable discussion points so that we can have factual conversation.