Aviation director: New Las Vegas airport not just a dream

A Southwest Airlines jet is pictured at Las Vegas’ Harry Reid International Airport.

A Southwest Airlines jet is pictured at Las Vegas’ Harry Reid International Airport.

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Passengers flying in and out of Las Vegas via Harry Reid International probably think the city could use another airport.

More than 48 million passengers passed through Reid International's gates in the first seven months of this year.

Some experts speculate the airport could reach its maximum load of 63 million to 65 million annual passengers by 2030.

It's busy, to say the least.

International travel has grown almost 50 percent in the past year. Year to date, the overall passenger traffic has grown by almost 16 percent.

That's what happens when you reinvent yourself as "The Sports Capital of the World," when you're already "The Entertainment Capital of the World."

"I mean, it was busy a couple of years ago," Rosemary Vassiliadis, Clark County's director of aviation, said on Nevada Newsmakers recently. "Now, with all these (new professional sports) teams and everything else, it's getting busier and busier. I mean, that's obvious with the number of times that we had to put out an alert about parking at the airport."

Expanding Reid International would seem like the way to go, except it's fenced in by other developments.

"We could not add an additional runway (at Reid International)," Vassiliadis told host Sam Shad. "We have Las Vegas Boulevard putting up to one side. We have the railroad putting up the other side.

"I mean, we are an encroached airport," Vassiliadis added. "We all know that. So encroachment could create some constraints. And that's what made us look at this (secondary) airport site again."

A new airport for Las Vegas – in the Ivanpah Valley, about 30 miles south of the city – has been talked about for more than two decades, although enthusiasm waned during economic downturns.

Now, however, the project is deemed sorely needed, and moving again.

"It's going to be just a wonderful addition and needed addition to the economic viability of Southern Nevada," Vassiliadis said.

A county projection from a few years ago estimated a new airport could cost more than $12 billion at full build-out, Clark County Commission Chairman Jim Gibson said earlier on Nevada Newsmakers

It would make it the most expensive construction project in the history of Las Vegas, easily outdistancing the Sphere, City Center, Allegiant Stadium and even the Hoover Dam.

To some, it's a pipe dream, Vassiliadis said.

"You know, this (Ivanpah Valley) airport's been talked about for such a long time," Vassiliadis said. "I don't know if people thought it was just a thought, an idea, a hope, you know, something that would be fun.

"It's not," she said. "I mean, how could anybody even think of that when anybody that flies in or out of Las Vegas sees how busy it is?"

She also discounts the sticker shock of a projected $12 billion price tag.

"So there's several different methods that are being pursued right now," Vassiliadis said. "We're going through all of these studies with FAA and with BLM and the question is, 'Do we need a full build-out on opening day?' And that is what's being studied.

"And if we don't need a full build-out, then it's not going to be that amount ($12 billion). It's going to be much less. So that is exactly what's going into these feasibility analysis, as we speak."

She also stepped back from a comment she made earlier this year to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, saying the capacity at Reid International could be reached seven years before the secondary airport opens.

"So what I'm telling you is we're not going to run out of space, OK?" Vassiliadis said. "We don't run out of space. We don't close our doors. We don't freeze in time because everything's so different."

Government cooperation

No real construction has begun on the supplemental airport, although some substantial government hurdles – in Carson City and Washington D.C. – have been cleared. Others remain, like environmental impact statements.

Earlier this year at the Nevada Legislature, lawmakers unanimously approved Senate Bill 19 to allow Clark County to put aside 5,000 acres or more off Interstate 15 between Jean and Primm as a new town for the airport.

Back in 2000, former U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, whose district included the Las Vegas Strip, helped push through Congress a 6,000-acre federal land swap for the airport.

It was critical to get the Legislature's approval for land for a new town now, even though the new airport's opening may be a long way off, said Joanna Jacob, Clark County's government affairs manager.

Real issues with water and infrastructure need to be solved. No major highway currently exists from Las Vegas to the proposed site.

"There's a number of things that we need to plan for," Jacob said. "I can't tell you how many people are working on this project within the county from the top to all of our planning departments, environment and quality, public works, our water reclamation. We must bring infrastructure in and we have to start planning for how to do so.

"So that was my answer to the dubious legislators who were wondering why now? And we actually had great support in the Legislature," Jacob said, noting the bill passed unanimously.

"This was very much why we did the legislation this year so that we could begin planning how to bring water and other utilities and services to the site," Jacob added.

The town and airport have yet to be named. The official designation for the airport remains the mundane, "Southern Nevada Supplemental Airport."

"So, yes, we had a number of questions, including, 'What are we going to name it?' " Jacob said about state lawmakers. "It's too early to tell, but there's a lot of excitement.”

The evolving trends in visitorship call for an increased reliance on air traffic and a new airport for the Las Vegas economy, Vassiliadis said.

The Raiders. Formula 1. The Golden Knights. The Sphere. The Super Bowl. College basketball tournaments. New Las Vegas teams and attractions are increasing visitors who come by air. International travel – 100 percent air traffic – is also increasing.

"It has now evolved to a different type of passenger behavior," Vassiliadis said. "So No. 1, actually more visitors arrive by air than drive in. Before, drive-ins were always more than 50 percent (of visitorship). That's no longer the case. And that's because of being a sports capital of the world. Completely different mindset and behavior.

"So before, we were always dependent just on room nights. And it worked like clockwork, right? We had leisure visitors, we had convention delegates and it worked wonderfully," Vassiliadis said.

"That's not the case anymore," she added. "So what we had to do is we had to change the way that we are looking at the operations of this airport."

The only ‘brand new’ airport in U.S.

When it is constructed, Las Vegas will be like Chicago, with two airports, O'Hare and Midway, sharing the passenger load, Vassiliadis said.

It will also be the only brand-spanking-new, built-from-the-ground-up airport in the United States, she said.

"We are the only brand new additional commercial airport in the United States system," she said. "So no one else has a brand new airport. There are replacements. Salt Lake just replaced their terminal. So they built a new terminal in front of the old terminal.

"We've already brought up Denver, which was a replacement airport," she continued. "But that is not a brand new commercial airport. This is. This is the only one in the system."

She revels in thinking about a new airport, complete with all the latest technologies plus green and sustainable construction techniques.

"That's what's exciting – being able to build a brand new airport and we're going to be able to inject so many sustainable features into it, where it's hard to do it on an older building such as this one (Reid International).

"It's exhilarating," she said. "It really is. And, you know, being able then to market that.... The airlines are very interested in sustainable types of operations and features in airports, especially international."

Specifically, what new technologies will be incorporated into the new airport is not known at this time, Vassiliadis said.

"Well, right now it's a conceptual design, so we have to just do a layout plan," she said. "You know, technology changes every single day. Airport systems are made of technology. That's our foundation. So it's hard to say, yes, it's going to be this or it's going to be that.

"What we want is something that is flexible enough to take in what that technology is, or the latest amenity, or the latest habit of the traveler at that time," she said.

The Ivanpah airport will also have longer runways, which will help get more flights from Asia. Currently at Reid, some jets bound for Asia only take off at night.

"The runway is planned to be longer than our longest one here (Reid International) at this time," she said.

Catering to locals

Yet the new airport must also cater to locals, Vassiliadis said.

"That is a big deal," she said. "There are 2.3 million people who live and work here. They travel. They go see their family. They go on vacations. So, yes, it's a big deal for the visitors and all the rest. But we also serve our very own community. Our children are our family that's coming in. And we need to you know, we want to be the best for them, too."

Some airlines will probably be forced to switch operations from Reid International to the Ivanpah airport. However, those decisions are a long way off, Vassiliadis said.

"It is too early for that because you don't know what that airline is going to be at that time," she said. "You know, we have mergers. We wake up and we hear about JetBlue and Spirit and then, you know, Spirit and Frontier. I mean, it's a crazy business at times."

Some have speculated that the new airport at Ivanpah could become a hub for cargo. That remains uncertain, although the business would be welcomed, Vassiliadis said, adding passenger traffic remains the top priority.

Yet she's certain about one thing: Aviation has been, and will continue to be vital for Las Vegas.

"This town is always going to reinvent itself, always has," Vassiliadis said. "And this latest one has been quite phenomenal, only because aviation has been a very, very big part of that, more than any of the other evolutions in the last 40 years."


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