McCarran International Airport just finished installing free wireless access across 90% of its public areas — not the first but by far the biggest domestic airport to do this.
"They clearly are leaders," said Dick Marchi, senior vice president for technical and environmental affairs in Washington, D.C., for Airports Council International, an industry association based in Switzerland.
McCarran has achieved these firsts while struggling to keep pace with Sin City's explosive expansion. Passenger traffic doubled in fewer than 15 years, reaching 41.44 million last year, more than 14% over 2003. In April, the airport plans to add 10 gates.
"It's bursting at the seams," said Donn Walker, Los Angeles-based spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration.
Congestion has contributed to late take-offs and long security lines. (More on that later.)
It's the high-tech gizmos that interest me most. They didn't happen by chance, said Randall Walker (no relation to the FAA's Walker), director of aviation for Clark County, Nev., which oversees McCarran.
On a tour of Singapore in the early 1990s, Walker, then deputy aviation director, discovered that airlines at Changi Airport shared a computer system. That meant ticket counters and gate podiums sat idle for fewer hours throughout the day as busier carriers took over stations from less busy ones. The result: You could process more customers with fewer stations.
"That's how you should run an airport," Walker said he told his boss.
U.S. airlines, accustomed to using proprietary software, were not impressed. When McCarran officials pitched the Changi concept to them, Walker recalled, "we could have harvested ice from that room, the reception was so chilly."
Over time, the ice melted, and McCarran rewired its terminals with fiber-optic cable to handle communications. Common wiring makes the innovations possible. Besides shared terminal equipment, these include:
SpeedCheck: McCarran in October 2003 became the first U.S. airport to install multi-airline check-in kiosks known as SpeedCheck.
These now connect customers to the computer systems of more than half the airport's 28 airlines, allowing them to check in, print boarding passes and — if they have no bags to check — bypass the ticket counter. (SpeedCheck stations at the America West and Delta ticket areas handle bags too.)
WiFi: By tapping into its own fiber-optic network, McCarran was able to install high-speed wireless access for a little more than $70,000, considered inexpensive for such a wide-ranging system.
Passengers with wireless-enabled laptops and personal digital assistants can access the Internet from nearly any public area for free — for now. Walker indicated the airport might consider charging in the future.
Remote check-in: Under this program, an extension of SpeedCheck, future McCarran International Airport users may be able to print out boarding passes and check in luggage from their Las Vegas hotels. A subcontractor would tag their bags on-site and haul them to the airport for screening.
"If checkout is at noon and your flight isn't until 7 p.m., you can get rid of your bags, and you're free for the next several hours," Walker said. "You can arrive at the airport an hour before your flight and float through security." Several airlines have signed up to test this program, he added; passengers would pay a fee for the service.
RFID luggage tags: By April, Walker said, McCarran hopes to begin attaching radio frequency identification tags to checked bags to shepherd them through security and on to the correct flight. The system is undergoing tests now.
The tags, which broadcast a unique identification number to scanners along an automated belt, are more accurate than bar codes, Walker said.
Amid such innovations, fast-growing McCarran has been plagued by familiar problems.
In January 2004, Las Vegas visitors trying to return home on a Sunday endured three-hour waits to get through security. Airport officials blamed the debacle partly on the giant International Consumer Electronics Show, which attracts more than 100,000 attendees each year.
McCarran has since added seven security lanes, and this year's electronics-show exit went more smoothly. Still, wait times at security on Sunday afternoons have run longer at McCarran than at LAX, Denver or JFK, according to the Transportation Security Administration.
There are also many tardy flights. During the 11 months ending in November, only 78.5% of McCarran's' flights departed on time — the fifth worst record among 31 major U.S. airports tracked in federal statistics. (The worst was Chicago's O'Hare airport, at 73.3%.)
McCarran's Walker said many delays were caused by inadequate airspace allotments that thwarted the airport's ability to get departure slots. FAA officials said they solved this problem early last year by adding a controller and two air routes south of Las Vegas. They denied that airspace was a factor in recent delays.
Both McCarran and FAA officials agreed that planes arriving late from other airports, congested scheduling by airlines and other factors also contribute to late takeoffs.
"We're working with the airlines on this," Walker said. "It's a complicated issue."
Meanwhile, McCarran's wireless-enabled passengers can at least while away the wait times by surfing the Internet.
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