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Transportation:

McCarran’s new international routes draw attention

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Mexican airline Volaris gets a ceremonial arch of water courtesy of the Clark County Fire Department as it makes its inaugural arrival at McCarran International Airport Wednesday, March 30, 2011.

Mon, Dec 5, 2011 (2:01 a.m.)

Richard N. Velotta

Richard N. Velotta

The “international” part of McCarran International Airport has received a lot of attention lately.

Now, a website offering analysis of airline routes and airport traffic has determined that McCarran had the biggest increase in new international routes in 2011 of any airport in the United States.

The site, www.anna.aero, handed out its 2011 “U.S. Annie Awards” recently and determined that of the 650 airports it monitors, McCarran had the most new flights with a net gain of six international routes.

Short for Airline Network News and Analysis, anna.aero uses science, statistics and evidence — specifically, data from the Official Airline Guide — instead of opinions and voting to determine which airports got the most new routes and which airlines added the most cities to their route maps.

The six new routes for McCarran included four from Canadian discount carrier WestJet, a new route from Mexican discounter Volaris and twice-weekly service from Manchester, England, on Virgin Atlantic Airways.

In 2011, WestJet added service to Las Vegas from Ottawa and Hamilton, Ontario, and Prince George and Kelowna, British Columbia. Technically, WestJet was flying the Kelowna route on a seasonal basis since 2008, but because flights were extended into October, it was counted as a new route.

The website noted that unlike some of its close rivals, McCarran didn’t lose any international routes in 2011.

Attracting more international lift is a key piece of Las Vegas’ tourism growth strategy. Local businesses capitalize on foreign visitors because they stay longer and spend more than their domestic counterparts.

That half-mile-long building just north of the airport’s D gates will be the new home of 14 new gates — six dedicated to international flights — and it’s going to open June 28.

At last week’s Governor’s Conference on Tourism, Clark County Aviation Director Randall Walker made the amazing disclosure that for a six-hour span on Thursdays, the six international gates would be at capacity. It only happens in that slice of time because some carriers don’t offer their flights every day.

“One of my staff members asked me, ‘What do I do if a carrier wants to add a flight at that time?’ And I said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t tell them not to come,’ ” Walker said.

The airport is going to remedy the problem by converting one of the eight domestic gates to accommodate international traffic. International gates are specially equipped to channel arriving passengers to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“Looking back at it now, I’m glad that we made the decision to build Terminal 3 when we did because there would have been no way to accommodate the international traffic we’re getting,” Walker said.

What’s the next international frontier for McCarran? Probably China or South America.

The airport collaborates with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority to recruit new airlines to the airport, and China and Brazil have the most potential demand for nonstop flights to and from Las Vegas.

In a separate session at the tourism conference last week, Karen Chen, the Nevada Commission on Tourism’s representative in China, said one of the top goals should be to get nonstop flights to and from China. That’s easier said than done, since the best bet would be to persuade a Chinese carrier to fly the route.

Walker said U.S. airlines were committed to flying between their hub airports, making the hopes of getting Delta, United, American or US Airways to fly a route almost impossible. McCarran and LVCVA airline recruiters mention that to foreign airlines.

The pitch goes something like this: “If your customers want to come to Las Vegas, why not fly here directly because your competitors fly to San Francisco, Los Angeles or Salt Lake City? Las Vegas is where your customers want to go … and the Customs lines are so long in San Francisco and Los Angeles.”

There are still visa application delay problems in China and Brazil, but they’re being addressed. As soon as it becomes easier for travelers to get a visa to enter the United States, there will be a need to fulfill the travel demand.

Brand USA is marketing travel to the United States and will begin running ads in March. McCarran’s new terminal opens in June.

The last piece will be to get airlines on board with nonstop flights to our airport so that McCarran can continue to win Annie Awards.

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