Like the city that surrounds it, McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas is unlike any place I’ve been before. The airport itself is clean, has unique exhibits and shops, but there is something that immediately strikes you when you come out of the jetway and into the airport: You’re basically in a casino. With slot machines everywhere, McCarran International is your first taste of the Vegas experience when you arrive and your last chance to make a few bucks on your way home.
It also provides one of the coolest takeoffs and landings in the country due to its close proximity to the Las Vegas Strip located just north of the airport. Like almost all airports, McCarran’s success and struggles have largely been related to the overall success of the city which it serves. When times are good, the airport is bustling. When times are bad, the airport suffers as well. Las Vegas has hit hard times but it has come a very long ways and seen incredible growth since the beginning nearly seven decades ago.
According to the Online Nevada Encyclopedia, McCarran Airport officially opened on December 19, 1948 with 12 daily flights served by United, Western Air Express, Transcontinental Western Airlines, and Bonanza Airlines (pictured).
Since that point, McCarran has seen tremendous growth mirroring the growth of Las Vegas as a city and as a tourist destination. By 1959, the airport was serving nearly one million passengers per year. In the years following, the airport was constantly playing catch up as demand grew at such a quick rate that new construction projects were constantly in the works. A new terminal building was built in the 1960s and new concourses (the A and B gates) in the 1970s. Growth was consistently pushing the airport to the brink of its capacity forcing almost constant construction and upgrades. Less than forty years after it hit one million, the airport was serving 30 million passengers by 1996.
By the 2000s, McCarran was quickly becomming one of the busiest airports in the world, surpassing 40 million passengers and cracking the top ten of the world’s busiest by 2005. The airport’s passenger totals peaked in 2007 with almost 47 million passing through the airport.
But there was perhaps no U.S. city hit harder by the economic collapse of 2008 than Las Vegas and passenger traffic began to plummet. In three years passenger totals dropped by 8 million per year and McCarran had fallen out of the top twenty in terms of busiest airports in the world. Where other cities faced hardship, Las Vegas faced a full-blown crisis as hotel rooms went unfilled and tourists stayed home.
Despite economic woes, expansion plans at McCarran continue as the airport anticipates a return to growth once the dust of the economic downturn settles. According to Aviation week by the end of 2012 a new 2 million square foot terminal building, Terminal 3, is expected to be finished bringing 14 new gates (Note: This article reports that Terminal 3 is expected to be finished by mid-2011 but according to McCarran’s website, that date is now 2012). When that terminal is complete, McCarran will be able to handle 53 million passengers per year, a number it thought it may have already passed before the recession but now may be many years out which gives the airport time to find ways to increase capacity once that number is reached.
But with a new aggressive marketing campaign abroad and the soon-to-be-delivered 787 on the horizon which will open up mid-sized international markets, officials at McCarran Airport are cautiously optimistic that with a return to economic prosperity and a little luck, McCarran will roar back to prominence as the gateway to the world’s entertainment capital.