Las Vegas McCarran International Airport (LAS) is doubling international gates in anticipation of increased demand, one of which will be large enough to accommodate the Airbus A380 Super-Heavy airliner. But the airport is marching towards its capacity and there’s no more room to expand. What does the future of air travel into Las Vegas look like?
Las Vegas McCarran International Airport can’t expand in any direction.
If you’ve never flown to Las Vegas (sure, of course you haven’t) you may not know that the city’s main airport is surrounded on all sides by development. To the west, the airport shares a border with the Mandalay Bay and Luxor hotels and casinos. To the south, there’s the Las Vegas beltway (I-215). To the north lies the University of Nevada-Las Vegas (UNLV). To the east, there’s a cemetery, two schools and a large business park. The airport is effectively boxed in, with no physical space available to construct new runways, terminals for passengers or cargo or aircraft maintenance facilities.
With this in mind, the newest round of construction at McCarran will require existing development to be converted into space for seven new international gates. This underscores the ever-increasing demand for space at McCarran. By doubling the current number of international gates from seven to 14 and providing enough room at one of the new gates for the oversized Airbus A380 to operate (A380 flights can’t currently serve McCarran because the infrastructure wasn’t designed to handle the massive jets) the airport seizes an opportunity to welcome additional international visitors on each arriving flight. Accompanying this work is the rehabilitation of main runway 25R/7L which began in November 2015.
The announcement to further increase international flight capacity at McCarran comes on the heels of the airport’s new (as of 2012) Terminal 3, built at a cost of $2.4 billion. Terminal 3 replaced the older and smaller Terminal 2, which is no longer in use and is scheduled to be demolished. A new terminal building could one day be built where Terminal 2 currently stands, although no plans are currently on the table for such development.
FAA airport diagram for McCarran International Airport. The old Terminal 2 structure is shown in black just north of the main concourse. The new Terminal 3 can be seen (also in black) just east of the main concourse.
Squeezing as many aircraft as possible into McCarran’s restrictive borders represents confidence that the city will remain a top destination for international tourism in years to come. Between 2003 and 2011, international visitors to Las Vegas increased by over 92 percent. A recent report to the Las Vegas Visitors and Convention Authority found that 19 percent of all visitors to Las Vegas in 2014 were from foreign countries. A full 76 percent of these foreign visitors gambled during their visit, and also had a longer length of stay (4 days) compared to domestic visitors. International visitors also spent the most on food and beverage, shopping and entertainment during their stays. These statistics illustrate the immense impact of international tourism on the Las Vegas economy, and clearly shows the logic behind filling in as many international gates into McCarran’s facilities as possible.
McCarran’s total passenger capacity is about 55 million people per year, a figure that looms on the horizon as traffic bounces back in the wake of the recession of 2008. In 2007, the airport handled 47.7 million passengers, a number which had receded to 39.8 million passengers by 2010. But in 2014, McCarran saw 42.9 million passengers, representing a steady recovery. Moreover, the overall Las Vegas economy is on the upswing, and city’s population grew by 1.6 percent between 2013 and 2014.
Between adding capacity to handle more flights per day, adding infrastructure to accommodate aircraft with more seats and enticing airlines to add new flights to Las Vegas, the city seems to be doing everything possible to maximize the space available at McCarran. We don’t know exactly how long it will take before McCarran reaches capacity, but if Las Vegas continues to grow at this post-recession pace, it may come sooner than many expect.
So, what can planners from the City of Las Vegas and Clark County do to prepare for this inevitable eventuality? About 15 years ago, then-Clark County Aviation Director Randall Walker proposed building a brand new airport south of Las Vegas to relieve pressure at McCarran. Because of the restricted military airspace north of Las Vegas, a new relief airport on the south side of the city is the best available option to planners. The new airport would be called Ivanpah Valley Airport, named for the surrounding Ivanpah Valley and Ivanpah Dry Lake Bed where it would be built. The site would be located on a 6,000 acre parcel between the tiny towns of Jean (2010 population: zero) and Primm (2007 population: 1,132). Primm was formerly known as State Line, as it sits on the border between Nevada and California.
The new airport construction would come at an estimated cost of $10 billion, and could take at least six years to complete. Clark County was allowed to purchase the land from the Bureau of Land Management for the proposed new airport, and initial environmental impact studies have also been conducted. The new airport would include two runways (12,000 feet and 15,000 feet) which would be able to handle long-haul aircraft.
View from I-15 Northbound looking into the Ivanpah Valley from California. In the middle distance is Primm, while Jean can be seen further beyond and to the left. Las Vegas is just behind the hills on the horizon.
Getting to Las Vegas from Ivanpah would require a 32 mile journey on I-15N. Because McCarran is located so close to hotels and casinos, the new airport could add considerable time between landing and hotel check-in for arriving passengers (especially for those staying on the north side of the strip). However, a new airport at Ivanpah could be linked to the Las Vegas strip by high speed rail or some other rapid mass transit system, such as Elon Musk’s proposed hyperloop. Solutions such as these would negate concerns about the distance between the new airport and the city’s top tourist attractions.
The Ivanpah site also features access to a Union Pacific Railroad track, making it ideal for transferring air cargo to rail cars. While McCarran isn’t currently a major destination for air cargo, Ivanpah’s situation could encourage new industries to locate nearby, making the new airport a major destination for cargo arriving in North America. As an alternative to crowded Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), a new cargo hub at Ivanpah could potentially offer much faster transit times for freight, along with a friendlier tax climate.
Moreover, the Ivanpah site would benefit from its proximity to the Nevada-California border. California’s expansive Inland Empire region (shown in red on the above map) which includes Riverside and San Bernardino counties, could find accessing the new airport more convenient than traveling through sprawling Los Angeles to reach LAX. This would be especially true if the proposed California-Nevada Interstate Maglev project between Anaheim, California and Las Vegas, or the proposed XpressWest high speed rail line between Palmdale, California and Las Vegas, were to be revived and completed.
Ivanpah would only be the third new major airport to be constructed in the U.S. in the preceding 50 years, following Denver International Airport (DEN) which opened in 1995 and Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport (DFW) which opened in 1974. Approving construction of a brand new airport is not without controversy, and the ideal solution for planners is to build out the existing infrastructure at McCarran until demand surpasses design limitations. This, along with the recession which severely impacted the Las Vegas economy due to its reliance on tourism dollars, explains why construction at Ivanpah isn’t already underway. According to McCarran’s webiste:
In 2010, in response to the economic downturn and reduced traffic at McCarran, the County decided to postpone additional funding for the Ivanpah EIS [Environmental Impact Study]. Until demand increases, the department will continue to work on the capital plan to increase capacity at McCarran and long-term planning for the Ivanpah Airport. When traffic levels warrant, the department will resume funding levels for, and will request that the FAA and BLM continue work on the EIS.
So, the plan to build Ivanpah is on hold. But many of the pieces to do so are in place, and barring another recession or some other event that would cause demand for air travel to Las Vegas to decline, it seems as though it’s really only a matter of time until Ivanpah airport construction begins in earnest.
It should be noted that Las Vegas isn’t the only city facing airport expansion concerns. New York City’s La Guardia, for example, is essentially being scrapped and rebuilt from the ground up to make it more efficient and less disgusting. San Diego International Airport (SAN) has no surrounding space for additional development, and proposals to expand London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR) could trigger the demolition of up to 4,000 nearby houses. Many airports around the world simply don’t have open space nearby which could be developed for expanding flight operations. To solve this problem, one extreme proposal suggested building massive offshore airports to facilitate huge futuristic flying boats, although this would be prohibitively expensive and would introduce incredible technical challenges.
Someday, travelers flying to Las Vegas will likely have a choice between McCarran and Ivanpah. It may not be in this decade, but eventually, demand will outpace McCarran’s capacity and planners will have no other choice but to build a new facility. As the desert beckons their arrival, flights into Ivanpah may not enjoy quite the same light show as those into McCarran, but passengers will probably still be greeted by the famous slot machines. Viva Las Vegas!
Photo credit: Top shot - Craig Butz/Wikicommons, LAS and immediate surrounding area satellite map via Google Earth, LAS diagram via FAA/Wikicommons, Las Vegas-Jean-Primm satellite map via Google Earth, I-15 Northbound Primm-Jean-Las Vegas photo - Stan Shebs/Wikicommons, California Inland Empire map - Optigan13/Wikicommons, McCarran slot machines at baggage claim - Jérôme/Wikicommons
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