Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport handled 45.4 million passengers in 2015, its third-busiest year in its history. Eighty percent of the airport’s traffic is made up of origin and destination travelers.
Most of the 30 airlines that served McCarran in 2015 saw their passenger numbers rise, led by low-cost carriers Frontier and Spirit. The airport generated $28.4 billion in total economic output in 2015 and created more than 200,000 jobs and $8 billion in labor income. When it comes to air service, much of it has come from markets outside of the U.S., including nonstop flights from England, Panama, Korea, Sweden and Denmark.
Overseeing all of this is Rosemary Vassiliadis, director of Aviation for Nevada’s Clark County. Her oversight also includes four general aviation facilities: North Las Vegas Airport, Henderson Executive Airport, Jean Sport Aviation Center and Overton/Perkins Field. Airport Business magazine spoke to her about how her airport is handling increased capacity, its growth in international carriers, getting flights for visitors and convention attendees and upgrading the airport’s passenger experience.
Airport Business: You opened Terminal 3 in 2012. What other changes have happened at the airport since then?
Rosemary Vassiliadis: With the opening of Terminal 3, we relocated all of our international operations there. Then we split our domestic operations for the first time ever at this airport because we now have two-unit terminals, each with their own ticketing, parking, curbs and gates. We also installed a new checkpoint baggage system.
Terminal 3 gave us an opportunity to have more room. In the hold rooms, you’ll see they are all larger because the airplanes have changed. Airplanes are getting bigger, and they’re putting more seats in them.
Looking at the behaviors of our airlines, we more than tripled our capacity with Terminal 3 and it gave us more capacity for wide-body jets and swing gates as needed.
From 2009 until today, our international service has grown almost 70 percent. It’s quite a story, because it started with the second daily Virgin [Atlantic] flight, along with the entrance of carriers such as Norwegian and Copa. Economic times will always fluctuate, but it’s been phenomenal that our international service was sustained during the recession and the recovery. And had it not been for Terminal 3, we would not have been able to accommodate them in a reasonable and efficient manner.
AB: What about domestic growth at the airport?
RV: Southwest Airlines is still our major carrier, at about 40 percent. We have around 225 flights a day. Southwest is adding more long-haul service than they ever had before. Spirit Airlines discovered us awhile ago, but the last two years they have seen phenomenal growth. That gets Allegiant Air and the others to notice. We have the demand.
The city has more than 150,000 hotel rooms, and they’re going to fill them. Daily average room rates have gone up and that’s nothing but a benefit for the local economy. People are are still coming despite room rates going up, but they’re now looking at low-cost carriers to get here.
We also see it with business travelers. JetBlue announced they’re going to bring in Mint, their premium product. So it’s not all low-yield passengers coming in. The mantra of the business people here is that they want to be on time. But now, they also want some amenities on their long-haul flights.
AB: How important has convention growth been for the airport?
RV: Since 2012, the town’s conventions are back. I don’t know how many records we broke already this year? The Consumer Electronics Show broke a record, along with a number of others since January. Our statistics tell us that 70 percent of conventioneers arrive by air. That’s a very important statistic that has helped our growth. Our legacy airlines are also peaking. We’ll always be a beneficiary because we have the demand for domestic service.
AB: Airports across the country have been challenged with growing Transportation Security Administration checkpoint lines. How has McCarran handled this issue?
RV: We take this very seriously. My staff meets with the TSA on a weekly basis. We look at conventions, special events and whatever else may be happening, especially if it’s a three-day weekend. We try very hard to staff for that because of the peaks and valleys that happen at our airport. We still have very high peak-time periods every day. We look at that and we know what seats are coming in each hour. We know what our average load factor is and we manage it all with TSA.
AB: How do you keep your finger on the pulse of what travelers what in your airport?
RV: We take our surveys very seriously, and we scour them to make sure that we’re accommodating the passenger with what they need and want. We also look at demographics, especially for our international travelers. For example, Asia has a whole mindset of its own. There’s a lot of impulse buying and so it is displayed in our terminals.
It’s also the right type of eatery. British passengers are one of our biggest travel groups and they love hamburgers. When we opened up Terminal Three, we had one hamburger place -- Carl’s Junior. But our survey showed that the Brits love hamburgers, so we now have a sit-down hamburger place.
We also sit with our concessionaires and talk about what passengers need. We want a good mix of grab-and-go, fast food, quick casual and full casual.
The behavior of the domestic passenger here in Las Vegas is that they don’t arrive that early. But once they get here, there’s a lot of impulse buying, because they need to bring something home and get something post-security that they bring onto the plane in a sack. But our international passengers are quite the opposite. They come here very early, so we offer them fuller menu options to accommodate that.
AB: What other facility changes are in the pipeline?
RV: The biggest thing for the airlines and all of our tenants is our facilities. So if you take a walk, you’ll see that there’s a huge project going on in Terminal One. It’s much more than a facelift. It truly is an improvement on every part of it. We were approved by TSA to upgrade and update our inline EDS baggage processing system. But we’re improving not only the baggage system, we’re improving the conveyor system, we’re improving the skycap system and the counter system.
We’re adding a more colorful terrazzo tile floor that looks better and wears better. We’re upgrading all the restrooms and we’re also adding restrooms, which will be a benefit for everybody.
AB: What are your goals for the airport for the rest of 2016?
RV: We want to offer the best customer experience and a seamless operation. Hospitality is something this town is known for, and we want it to start the second that aircraft door is opened. We know that it doesn’t matter to passengers whether it’s Custom and Border Protection, the TSA or us. We represent this destination. People choose to come to this destination and we want that Las Vegas experience and that hospitality that we’re known for to start and end here.