LAS VEGAS — As some 6,000 people relocate here every month and tourism to the region grows to new heights, officials at McCarran InternationalAirport are taking every precaution to ensure it’s prepared to handlethe traffic. According to Randall Walker, director of aviation, andSamuel Ingalls, assistant director of information systems, common use and other technology enhancements lead the charge in meeting this challenge.
Walker, a Las Vegas native, counts “keeping ahead of the growth” as the airport’s major challenge, aside from the aftermath of 9/11. “In the ‘90s,” explains Walker, “the compounded growth rate [of passengers] was 6.5 percent. That’s phenomenal. From 1990 to 2001 we went from 19.1 million to almost 37 million passengers. Our whole goal is to build and put facilities in place that will accommodate that kind of volume.”
Because of the rapid growth, Walker says the airport is under construction almost non-stop.
The airport experienced 3.6 percent growth in 2003 over 2002, which is still down from its peak in 2000. “We’re back up and most of that growth came in the last four months. So far this year, for the first four months, we’re up 14.8 percent,” says Walker.
For the short-term, explains Walker, the airport has the necessary facilities in place to handle the growing capacity. However, because Las Vegas is such a tourist-based economy, what he’s not sure of is the airport’s ability to keep ahead of the growth.
He says there are some 9,500 hotel rooms currently under construction. And, if these rooms are successful, no doubt more will be added. “They can get [hotel rooms], from the time they announce them to the time they open in about two years,” says Walker. “We’re a government agency. And as good as we think we are, we can’t bring things on line that quickly. We can plan for a certain level of traffic on our master plan, but when we find out [more hotels are adding rooms], from the time of getting an architect, doing the design, bidding it out, to construction, we’re usually a year or two behind.”
The airport is currently capable of handling 42 million passengers annually. For 2004, the airport is projecting 37 million total passengers.
Flexibility of Common Use
Constant construction isn’t the only way to combat the capacity crunch. The airport is using technology to address many of the concerns, particularly, common use technology.
“We want to make sure that we are using our terminal facilities as efficiently as we possibly can,” says Ingalls. “And there are huge savings in that.”
According to Ingalls, LAS’s Terminal D cost some $12 million per gate to construct, which came on line about five years ago. “In terms of the CUTE (common use terminal equipment) system, it costs less than one gate in that terminal building. We’ve achieved far more efficiency [with CUTE].”
The efficiency comes through not just with gates and counters, but with the entire shared network, which Ingalls calls the “foundation for everything that operates here at the airport.” The CUTE systems, SpeedCheck systems (the airport’s common use check-in equipment), flight information display systems, baggage information display systems, telecommunications, and more all operate on the shared infrastructure.
LAS chose to employ ARINC’s MUSE (multi-user system equipment) for its CUTE system. Ingalls explains the system operates on a common PC interface and “generally emulates all of the functionality of [each airlines’] reservations systems. The keystrokes are usually the same, to the extent that they can be. What they see on the screen is essentially their system.”
The CUTE system allows the airlines to seamlessly check in and access all their passenger information and other applications from virtually any place in the airport, Ingalls explains.
As each airline signs on or signs off from a gate position, the electronic signage changes appropriately, enforcing the airline’s brand presence. “To their customer,” says Ingalls, “they have no idea it’s not a dedicated airline gate or facility because they’re looking to signage; and it looks and feels like that airline’s gate. It’s really transparent to the customer.”
Ingalls says the savings to the airlines has accrued in a macroeconomic sense. “If we have to build terminal facilities, by in large, it’s the airlines that foot the bill for those new terminal facilities.” With common use, he says, “we’re able to save them hundreds of million of dollars in brick and mortar costs, which allows us to continue keeping their rates low here.”
According to Ingalls, planners at the airport have suggested CUTE has resulted in a 15 percent gain in efficiency. “And that’s significant,” he says. “That’s not anything to be sneezed at — when you’re talking about an operation of this size — when you pick up 15 percent efficiency at a cost that is considerably below anywhere near what it would cost to build that additional capacity into the airport system.”
Ingalls explains common use equipment allows the airport to make the most of gates at all hours of the day. For example, he says, Southwest Airlines is one of the few at LAS that does not have a late night operation. “That’s a very busy time for us at the airport, so it’s really important to us that we be able to use those late night facilities that they’re using very efficiently during the day.”
The efficiency savings is also being realized currently due to a construction project which is replacing some concrete and installing a hydrant fueling system. “It’s very easy to take the airlines and shift them over to other gates,” says Ingalls. “In the old course of doing business, given that project, we would have had to pay to rip out all of their proprietary equipment, install it somewhere else, and probably install cabling, conduit, and everything to hook into their data systems over in that temporary location, then rip it all out again and put it back where it was. It’s just wasted cost.”
The airport’s initial investment in the CUTE system was some $9 million.
Common use is also employed on the passenger side of operations. Those passengers without bags to check, roughly 30 percent of LAS travelers, can utilize the SpeedCheck kiosks located in the terminal, the parking facility, and at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
Some 13 airlines at LAS are already using the CUSS (common use self-service) kiosks. The airport has invested some $1.5 million in the CUSS system and Ingalls says the next phase will be to move the kiosks into the ticket counters. Some of the carriers have installed their own kiosks, with the agreement that they will remove them when the airport is prepared to replace the kiosks with common use equipment.
Through an airport operations data base (AODB), other efficiencies are also provided for the airport. Ingalls says the data base, which gathers information directly from the airlines or from the FAA flight data center, serves a number of purposes, including FIDS, an automated voice response system for flight announcements, and baggage carousel assignment.
Explains Ingalls, “The baggage carousel assignment system refers to that data in the database and looks at those flights as they’re coming in and makes carousel assignments based on the actual arrival times of [the aircraft].” Rather than have a carousel dedicated to one airline, he says, the system is actually looking at the flights and “in accordance with a specified algorithm, makes the carousel assignments.” The system is capable of determining whether the flight is a wide- or narrow-body plane and knows how many flights to put on each carousel before moving to the next. “If you look at the percentage gained in terms of efficiency use in the terminal,” says Ingalls, “we’ve probably seen more toward a 25 percent increase in efficiency.
Creative planning and common use technology will only carry McCarran International Airport so far in its effort to keep up with growing traffic. Therefore, airport officials have plans to construct a second Las Vegas airport, projected to be operational in 2017.
McCarran International Airport has some 2,800 acres, says aviation director Randall Walker. And on this site, the airport has the ability to grow to 52 million passengers. Beyond that, the airport will be “essentially out of capacity here,” he says. “So what we’re looking for long-term is another airport site to build a second airport; not a replacement airport, but an additional airport.”
Walker says the airport purchased some 6,500 acres some six miles east of the California border on Interstate 15. The land was purchased for the sole purpose of building an airport. If the community of Las Vegas does not continue to grow at such explosive rates, and the airport does not need to be built, or if the environmental study shows the land to be not suitable for an airport, the $20 million plot of land will revert back to the federal government.
“We know it’s going to be a tough project to build because of the environmental [aspects],” says Walker. Additionally, the airport will have to anticipate growth at LAS so the additional airport will be open at or near the same time LAS reaches capacity. “That’s a great juggling act,” says Walker.
As far as how a new airport would differ from LAS, Walker explains officials would “try to match the right kind of traffic up with each airport.” He says international traffic would probably be directed to the new airport. Also, charter traffic would be “perfectly suited” for the second airport.
The ultimate build-out of the second airport is 35 million annual passengers. “So this [LAS] will still be the bigger airport, with the lion’s share of the traffic,” says Walker.
The nation's sixth-busiest airport is already nearing its ultimate capacity of 53 million annual passengers, a limit imposed by a runway system that cannot be expanded because of nearby development.