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.
March: London Gatwick
There was a period of time where London Gatwick Airport, LGW (IATA: LGW, ICAO: EGKK) provided one of the most exciting concentrations of super-jumbo jets from around the world. The airport seemed to be a 747 mating ground and due to its small physical size and limited runway space, it felt like the most chaotic airport I had ever been to.
I remember landing in Gatwick for the first time on an American Airlines 767 from Raleigh Durham and having to deplane onto the tarmac because there wasn’t a gate available for us (being able to actually walk next to the plane as a wide-eyed 10 year old gave me a great appreciation for just how big they really are).
It is the busiest single-use runway airport in the world and due to previous restrictions at London’s larger airport, Heathrow, many long-haul international flights were forced to use Gatwick.
Thanks to new open skies agreements between the U.S. and Europe, most of the long-haul international traffic that use to serve Gatwick has been shifted over to the much-larger Heathrow airport on the western outskirts of London allowing Heathrow to expand its lead over Gatwick as the world’s busiest international airport ever since.
And while today many traveler’s first introduction to Europe comes when they step off the plane at Heathrow, there was a time where Gatwick, although still much smaller than Heathrow, was a prominent international airport and was many travelers first sight upon arrival after a long overnight flight.
According to the Gatwick Aviation Society, Gatwick’s history as an airport began in the late 1920’s and was solidified in the early 1930’s when the airfield was used as a flying club for Londoners looking to take pleasure flights around south London. By 1934, the UK’s Air Ministry issued its first license to Gatwick, opening the airport up to public use.
By 1958, the modern version of Gatwick was officially opened as London’s second airport
and commercial carriers started flying to the airport located 30 miles south of London. It wasn’t until the 1970s however, that runway improvements and extensions began to entice transatlantic traffic to the airport and Gatwick began to play a role as a prominent international hub.
The 1980s saw a large increase in international travel as London became a focal point both as an important world financial center and as a well-positioned connection point between Europe and North America.
By 1987, Gatwick was handling more international passengers a year than any other airport in the world except Heathrow, surpassing JFK in New York for second place. Flights from around the globe served Gatwick despite the fact that the airport could only operate one of its two runways at a time and didn’t have gate space to handle the increasing traffic.
By the mid 2000s, Gatwick’s international passenger traffic started to decline as a new Open Skies Agreement between the U.S. and Europe opened up access to Heathrow allowing many carriers to switch over to the larger airport. Today, Gatwick is still the twelfth busiest international airport in the world although that number has continued to decline as Gatwick shifts to being more regionally-focused. After being a hub for British Airways which use to operate nearly 40% of the slots at Gatwick, the airport is now more evenly split between British Airways and budget carrier easyJet among many other regional airlines and some remaining international carriers.
In 2009 Gatwick was sold by BAA, a company which operates Heathrow and London’s Stansted Airport, to Global Infrastructure Partners. Global Infrastructure Partnerts is now looking for ways to further increase the airports capacity, possibly adding a new runway after a ban on runway expansion expires in 2019 according to London newspaper The Times.
An additional runway and increased passenger capacity could signal a large increase in passenger totals at Gatwick especially since Heathrow has struggled to to get a new runway of its own approved. London’s Mayor Boris Johnson recently proposed either building a new airport near London or doing a massive expansion of Gatwick as a remedy to the near-capacity passenger traffic in and out of London.
Despite being around for more than half a century, Gatwick remains a critical airport in England’s airport infrastructure and with a new operator and possible expansion plans on the horizon, Gatwick’s long-term future is secure and promising.
February: Denver International Airport
Since it opened nearly 16 years ago, Denver International Airport (DIA), (IATA: Den, ICAO: KDEN) has been defined by two things: Enormous space, and the strange-looking, tarp-covered roof that greets passengers as they land at the world’s tenth busiest airport.
Denver had the rare luxury of being able to build an airport entirely from scratch with enough land for plenty of expansion to accommodate growth in the decades to come. In fact, DIA is the third largest airport, in terms of square mileage, in the world at 53 square miles.
More than 50 million people per year pass through the airport with a large majority of them flying on United, Frontier, and Southwest, the airports three largest tenants (Frontier and United operate hubs at DIA while Southwest uses it as a focus city).
DIA replaced the now-closed Stapleton Airport which was situated only ten minutes from downtown Denver but was more than 65 years old at the time it closed and was faced with increasing congestion, limited gate space, and noise complaints from nearby neighborhoods.
Initial funding for the new airport came in 1989 under former Denver Mayor Federico Pena whom the city named the main boulevard to the airport after in recognition of his efforts to open the world-class airport.
Ground broke on DIA on November 22, 1989 and the airport was opened on Feb. 28, 1995. The total cost of the airport was $4.9 billion putting it over budget by nearly $2 billion and almost 16 months behind schedule.
One of the most ambitious projects at the new airport, and ultimately one of the most costly and ineffective, was the incorporation of an automated baggage system which would replace the need for baggage carts to drive baggage from the concourse to the main terminal building. The system, partially funded by hub airline United, never worked properly and cost overruns and damage to baggage ultimately led to its abandonment.
Room For Growth
Today DIA is one of the most efficient and spacious airports in the country. Business Traveler Magazine has named the airport the best in North America for six years in a row.
Despite its cleanliness and modern feel, DIA has been open for nearly 16 years now and recently began planning a major expansion that will include light rail lines that will take passengers from the airport to the heart of downtown Denver in less than 30 minutes, an accompanying train station, and the first on-site hotel at the airport.
Leading the design efforts of the hotel and rail expansion is world-renowned architect Santiago Calatrava who submitted initial design work in July of 2010. The expansion carries an estimated cost of $650 million and is expected to be completed by the end of 2015 if the complete proposal is approved.
Despite being one of the world’s busiest airports and despite having plenty of room for growth, DIA has a noticeable lack of international flights to Europe and zero daily flights to Asia. Boeing’ new 787, which was in Denver in January for testing, has turned Denver into an international target market for airlines using the 787 since the plane will be able to travel long distances but doesn’t have the passenger capacity as the larger aircraft such as the 747, 777, and A380, making it an ideal plane for mid-size markets that lack the demand to fill larger wide-body planes but are too far away to be reached by smaller planes. As the 787 gets delivered to its first customers, look for more international flights to be brought to the mile-high city (All Nippon Airways, the launch customer for the 787, has been in negotiations with Denver to bring a direct flight to Tokyo to the airport)
February marks the 16th anniversary of the opening of DIA and with an impressive expansion effort underway, the airport will continue to serve as the primary gateway to the west for air travelers. By the time it reaches its planned capacity, DIA will be able to handle 110 million passengers a year. And with 53 square miles of space, it is unlikely that a new airport for Denver will be necessary for a very long time.