WORLD ROUTES: McCarran International - Las Vegas’ High Roller

Las Vegas is one of the most exciting destinations in the world – and its airport plays a key role in facilitating tourism to the city, as its director Rosemary Vassiliadis tells Alex Hannaford.

It may have seemed like an easy step up the ladder: from deputy director to director – but when you’re responsible for one of the busiest airports in the world; your predecessor was in the role for 16 years; and you’re taking the helm at an airport that has seen massive amounts of construction over the past few years despite a gloomy economy, that step doesn’t look so small any more.

From 1997, Rosemary Vassiliadis was the Clark County Department of Aviation’s deputy director until, in June this year, she took over at McCarran International in Las Vegas from Randall Walker, who retired. Last year McCarran served more than 41 million passengers. “It’s a huge step,” Vassiliadis says. “And I have very big shoes to fill.”

She says her role is both challenging and daunting. A decade of construction has sought to address growing passenger numbers. The current taxiway has been lengthened and new taxiways added. And then there was Terminal 3. “The actual T3 project took six years,” Vassiliadis says. Just as the project launched, though, the economy took a dive and she says it was a big decision to continue with construction. “It was difficult. We were very cautious, but we’d already broken ground and we decided to go ahead. It turned out to be the best decision we made. T3 opened last year and now we’re cautiously optimistic.”

Having focused on expansion for the past 16 years, Vassiliadis says the airport will now concentrate on operations and on expanding its route network to Asia.

Route network

A total of 31 airlines currently use McCarran, the most popular being the low-cost domestic carrier Southwest Airlines, followed by Delta, United and then American. Asked what her philosophy is about keeping the airlines happy and attracting more carriers, Vassiliadis says it’s having a sound financial base. “We don’t want to have spikes in rates and charges from year to year because its hard for airlines to adjust to that. Each year we have a budget meeting and we present our airlines with a multi-year plan.”

Currently, Korean Air provides McCarran’s only non-stop service from Asia and so the focus is on getting more trans-Pacific routes – primarily to Japan and China, as Asian O&D has grown 32% in the past three years.

Domestically, the most popular routes at McCarran are to and from Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Chicago. For international travel, the airport sees a lot of traffic to and from Canada – particularly Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver; then it’s Mexico City, and the United Kingdom from both Heathrow and Gatwick.

McCarran has also seen a number of new airlines coming in from Europe and Latin America. However, it has prioritised a collaborative approach and at the onset of the recession became heavily involved in its partnership with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which put greater focus on new international airline service.

McCarran has also offered an incentive programme for a couple of years, in which landing fees are waived on all operations in excess of what the airline provided in the same month of the prior year. Additionally, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority has a programme that offers co-operative marketing funds to support new services, especially international ones.

In addition to passenger traffic, McCarran also handles around 200 million pounds of cargo a year, and while that may pale in comparison with some other large airports, Vassiliadis says the legacy carriers have found it to be profitable, and they see some interesting consignments go through. “Because of the conventions we have, we see exotic animals, electronic stuff for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), classic autos, fresh fish and flowers that the hotels use.”

Before joining the Clark County Department of Aviation, Vassiliadis was director of finance for Clark County, which encompasses Las Vegas – valuable experience when it came to running an airport business some years later.

Certain Clark County departments operated as enterprise funds, Vassiliadis explains, and so were supported entirely from user fees, not tax dollars. Likewise, the budget McCarran operates on comprises rates and airline charges. “Then we try to maximise revenues with food and beverages, specialty shops, parking and rental car fees,” she says. In addition, Vassiliadis says McCarran is one of only two airports in the US that has gaming in the building – something that can provide a sizeable additional source of revenue, particularly as gaming is one of the main reasons most people head to Las Vegas. Today, Vassiliadis says, the airport’s revenue is around 50% airline and 50% non-airline.

Customer focus

One of her other main priorities is customer service and the end-user experience. Although Vassiliadis laughs when she says she drums this into her “poor staff” everyday, she points out that McCarran is a major Origin and Destination (O&D) airport. Her customers use every facet of McCarran, unlike other, bigger airports, where they are often just passing through.

“Atlanta, for example, is a much busier airport, but 65% of people are connecting so they don’t use ticketing, they don’t use the roadway system or parking,” Vassiliadis says. “Around 80% of our customers use everything.” So she is determined to make the experience better. “Brand it a little bit. We are part of the experience,” Vassiliadis says.

Vegas style

This idea of offering a little of the destination in the airport is something that Vassiliadis says Austin Bergstrom airport in Texas does very well – with its independently owned shopping and restaurant concessions that reflect the smaller, independent businesses that are a flavour of the city, and musicians playing on a stage to greet travellers when they arrive.

When the Transport Security Administration (TSA) first introduced ‘tip screens’ explaining the procedure to get through security (no sharp objects, limits on fluids, shoes removed, etc), Vassiliadis says McCarran did it “the Vegas way”. “We didn’t have a film of a TSA agent explaining the procedure. We had Vegas celebrities and personalities. And we’ll be updating those to reflect who’s currently playing on the strip.”

Travelling can be a stressful experience and it’s touches like these, she says, that help to keep people’s anxiety levels down.

In addition to gambling, Las Vegas also has the largest single-level convention centre on the planet – with more than three million square feet of events space, which is the site for this year’s World Route Development Forum. In February, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority approved the first phase of a $2.5 billion overhaul of the centre – the first major expansion in more than a decade.

Vassiliadis says that from a destination point of view, no other city can offer the experiences that Vegas can. “You can still get a very reasonable room rate; you can still get value here,” she says. And she says the airport is busy because the city’s constant reinvention ensures tourists keep visiting – and then coming back. “There are so many different types of shows – not just headliners any more. We have smaller, more intimate venues too. As for shopping, we have boutiques to malls. And then there’s the dining that has been its biggest hit after gaming. “All the top chefs come here,” she says. “People still come to Las Vegas with a vacation mentality. They’re going to splurge a little more, treat themselves to that fancy dinner,” she adds.

However, the vacation mentality also comes with some challenges for the airport. The majority of people using McCarran are what she terms “unseasoned vacationers”. “They travel once a year and so their anxiety levels are a little higher.” Because of this, Vassiliadis says it’s important for her staff to make sure they create a smooth travelling experience. She insists on providing clean, working restrooms, making sure that the concessions are open at the right times and are well stocked, and that there is merchandise and souvenirs available.

“If they had a good time but didn’t have time to go shopping in Vegas, they can shop here and that’s what we want. So we provide the latest products, displayed in an inviting way. That’s customer service. If there’s a torn piece of carpet, replace it. We also work hard with the airlines to ensure ticketing lanes and booths are open with sufficient time for people to check in and get to their gate. The nature of the unseasoned passenger is they have to get to the hold room area. Once they see it, they’re fine and they go wandering.” There has also been growth over the past five years in international air travellers, and Vassiliadis says McCarran “now has a beautiful facility to process them through”.

She says it’s interesting to look at the difference in habits of the international passenger. The British, for example, come to the airport three to four hours ahead of time. “We had people sitting in the lobby with oversized luggage. So we said: let’s get a sit-down Starbucks in the unsecured area. “If they want to come three hours ahead, we can’t stop them, so let’s make it easier for them. We certainly don’t want to be a deterrent. “Customer service encompasses every part of our operation. How do we do that? Staff. Getting my staff to have ownership. Then the results are going to show.”

Room for expansion

Because McCarran is located near the famous Las Vegas Strip and therefore has only limited space available for expansion, in the early 2000s, Clark County bought 6,500 acres of land about 30 miles southwest of the current airport and embarked on ambitious plans to develop it as a relief airport called Ivanpah Valley.

This was put on hold in 2010 in the economic downturn, but Vassiliadis says the land is being retained and preserved for future commercialisation. “You never know,” she says. “With the flexibility T3 gives us at McCarran in terms of kerb space, parking, ticketing and baggage claim, we’ll be satisfied for now, but if this town ever has huge growth again like it did in the 2000s, the resorts will expand south.”

That’s when they may need Ivanpah. Vassiliadis says it makes sense to look to the hotels and whether they’re expanding to determine what the airport should do. “We want to be ready,” she says. “And it would be prudent of me to keep that site.”

This article was reproduced and edited from an original story that appeared on our sister publication Routes News. The latest bumper World Routes edition of the official air service development magazine is available in your delegate bags or can be read online by clicking here.

Richard Maslen

Richard Maslen has travelled across the globe to report on developments in the aviation sector as airlines and airports have continued to evolve and…