LAS VEGAS – With the arrival of an overnight flight from London this week, Las Vegas will mark the opening of a $2.4 billion airport terminal that officials say could help lift the southern Nevada economy from the depths of the Great Recession.
Some are crediting McCarran International Airport planners with foresight for giving a go-ahead in 2008 for a project that airport chief Randall Walker now calls crucial to serving tourists from the U.S. and Britain, plus places like Panama, South Korea, the Philippines, Amsterdam and Berlin.
"What they've done is good, solid planning," said Michael Boyd, an aviation analyst based in Evergreen, Colo. "When Air China wants to come in, AirIndia or Turkish Air, they're going to want a gate right away. This is a good move for Las Vegas. It keeps them ahead of the curve."
The airlines Boyd cited aren't among the 16 international carriers set to use McCarran's new Terminal 3. But the second overseas arrival scheduled on opening day, Wednesday, will be a new one. Copa Airlines will be making its inaugural nonstop flight from Panama City.
The first full day of operations at the new terminal will be Thursday.
The facility, dubbed T3, will spread the flow of the nearly 114,000 daily travelers passing through the airport.
Passengers using the new "E Gates" terminal will find a gleaming, sky-lit three-story structure stretching almost a half-mile from end to end. It has self-serve check-in kiosks, streamlined security, eight miles of automated baggage-handling and more than 900 video LCD flight, baggage and gate information displays.
"It will have state-of-the-art technology and capabilities," said John Hansman, director of the International Center for Air Transportation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It also has the advantage of being designed after the security procedures and policies we have were put in place."
The facility also has free wireless Internet, plentiful places to recharge electronic devices, $5 million worth of public artwork, four replicas of Betty Willis' iconic "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign and, of course, slot machines.
"It is on budget and on time," Walker said.
It will add 14 more gates and an eight-story parking structure to an airport currently ranked by Airports Council International as eighth-busiest nationally and 23nd worldwide by passenger volume. McCarran handled 41.5 million passengers last year with 96 gates.
The new terminal will expand the airport capacity to 53 million passengers a year, and increase from 800 to 2,000 an hour the number of international travelers who can pass through an expanded U.S. Customs and Border Protection arrivals hall.
Seven of the new gates will serve international flights. Seven will host domestic carriers. Neither the gates nor baggage carousels will have the number 13 — a concession to superstition in a city where casino luck ebbs and flows.
Opening the new terminal will allow for eventual demolition of an old international terminal with four outmoded gates and a cramped customs area. Walker said up to 10 more gates might be added there before McCarran reaches its property limit.
Nevada's housing market and economy plunged during the recession, and the state still leads the nation in unemployment, bankruptcies and foreclosures. But even as numbers dropped and the economic downturn took hold, Walker said airport administrators kept their focus on the horizon.
"The airport never wants to be an impediment to the growth of the community," Walker said, as he credited Clark County commissioners with giving the go-ahead in 2008 to float bonds for the T3 project.
"It took a lot of guts," Walker said. "But if we didn't have seven international gates this summer, we wouldn't be able to accommodate the international traffic that we're getting."
Airport cash flow will repay the debt over the next 25 years, Walker said.
Airport analyst Stephen Van Beek called the cost of the T3 project easily supportable by future airport revenues, advertising, gambling and concessions.
"The beauty is you have a lot of revenue generated not on the carriers," Van Beek said.
In separate interviews, Van Beek and Boyd said Las Vegas enjoys a unique position relative to airport expansions elsewhere, including a $1.8 billion renovation and expansion project starting at Salt Lake City International Airport.
"Las Vegas is not Omaha or New York City," Boyd said. "People go to Las Vegas for the Strip and conventions and downtown. That's different from passengers passing through Atlanta going somewhere else."
Atlanta, the world's busiest airport by passenger volume, handles more than 89 million passengers a year. But Van Beek said maybe one in three passengers stays in Atlanta, while almost all of McCarran's passengers begin or end their trip in Las Vegas.
Walker said conventioneers and tourists account for 80 percent of McCarran passenger traffic, and local residents make up another 12 percent. Just 8 percent of McCarran passengers currently use the Las Vegas airport as a connecting hub for another flight.
Van Beek noted the Las Vegas airport isn't tied to the fortunes of one large air carrier, but serves as a destination for carriers including Southwest Airlines.
"Airports like San Diego and Las Vegas, where Southwest is their leading carrier, have an advantage because their leading carrier is growing," he said.
Hansman, the MIT professor, said air travel is expected to grow nationally in years to come and that Las Vegas will need the expanded airport to compete.
"Airports are the waterfront property of aviation. You're not getting new ones, so you have to take advantage of what you've got and make it as efficient as possible," he said.