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McCarran Airport: Making the International Connections

The Dec. 1 University Forum talk examines into the role that airports play politically, economically, and culturally in connecting America’s Western cities with the world.

Campus News  |  Nov 20, 2015  |  By UNLV News Center
McCarran International Airport

Lights from a departing plane leave a trail in this long exposure of McCarran International Airport and the south end of the Las Vegas Strip. (Aaron Mayes/UNLV Photo Services)

Editor's Note: 

For the University Forum Lecture Series presents How Airlines/Airports Connected Cities of the American West at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 1 in the Barrick Museum Auditorium. Here, presenter Dan Bubb, a professor-in-residence in the UNLV Honors College, gives us a preview of his talk.


The rapidly growing international air travel market is bringing unprecedented numbers of air passengers to American Western cities. Indeed, during the past two decades, the international air traveler volume has collectively swelled to more than 20 million. With markets expanding in Asia, Europe, Central, and South America, the number of international flights to Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and other western metropolitan international airports also has dramatically increased, resulting in considerable airport growth.

Airports are building new international terminals with state-of-the-art technology, shops, and five-star restaurants. They’re filling their corridors with globally acclaimed artwork and local museums artifacts. The result has been a transformation of Western American airports that has globally connected their cities with the world. Getting to this point, however, has not been easy for many airports, not even Las Vegas’s McCarran International Airport.

Seventy years ago, McCarran Airport had no international flights and consisted of two dirt runways, a small terminal with a weather room, a ticket counter, and, of course, a handful of slot machines. It sat just north of the isolated, tiny desert town of Las Vegas. In 1938, the airport nearly closed its doors when Western Air Express, the only airline serving Las Vegas, threatened to leave over a lease dispute.

The airport faced other challenges including inadequate funding for expansion when gaming, tourism, and air travel proliferated after World War II. Even taxpayers’ willingness to help pay for airport expansion was limited. In 1966, the airport finally became self-sustaining and began handling international flights. It symbolized a new era when Las Vegas officially became connected to the world through commercial aviation, but only with the help of local and national politicians, businessmen, boosters, and airport officials.

Today, the airport is even more globally connected as more international airlines offer direct, nonstop flights to Las Vegas.

In his address to airline and aviation executives at the 2014 Annual General Meeting of International Air Transport Association in Doha, Qatar, the association’s president, Tony Tyler, celebrated commercial air travel’s centennial. He lauded the industry for being the world’s largest revenue generator, at $2.4 trillion annually. Airline passenger planes annually transport 3.3 billion passengers and 52 million tons of cargo across the globe each year. Tyler proclaimed air travel to be the “lifeblood” of the global economy. As the industry continues to grow, however, there is a problem. Many United States airports struggle to keep up with the growth of international travel.

While some airports, such as New York’s JFK International Airport, Los Angeles International Airport, and San Francisco International Airport, have upgraded or built new international terminals, others have not, and the airlines and air cargo carriers are threatening to take their business elsewhere. That, of course, could have major economic repercussions.

Fortunately, officials at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas anticipated this increase, and in collaboration with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, sent teams worldwide to invite new air carriers such as Edelweiss (Switzerland) and Copa Airlines (Panama) to offer multiple weekly nonstop flights to Las Vegas. They also worked closely with politicians, such as U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, to get federal funding to build the new $2.4 billion, state-of-the-art Terminal 3. It stands three stories high, stretches nearly two miles and has 15 gates, nine baggage carousels, restaurants, and shops. The terminal also annually handles more than 2.6 million international visitors and now rivals some of the world’s finest terminals.

Without the involvement and expansion of large, metropolitan American Western airports, the West would have remained fairly isolated from the world, and would have been left out of the nearly $500 billion in combined revenue generated by airports and airlines to cities including Las Vegas. While it is important to tell the story of how airlines helped the American West become part of the global aviation market, so too did airports, and their story also is worth telling.