Air travel into Las Vegas slid for the fourth straight month in May, new numbers from McCarran International Airport show.
The airport hosted 3.48 million arriving and departing passengers in the month, down 1.6 percent from 3.53 million fliers in May 2009. What's more, passenger counts through McCarran are down 3.4 percent, or 573,873 passengers, year over year in the first five months of 2010.
Observers blamed the passenger slump on two major factors.
First, economic malaise continues to eat into discretionary budgets, so cost-conscious consumers are still eschewing pricier air travel to distant destinations and opting instead for less-expensive road trips to nearby markets, said Brian Gordon, a principal in local research and consulting firm Applied Analysis. Drive-in visitors can also take advantage of shorter booking windows on hotel-casino promotions. Such last-minute deals are tougher to accommodate for air travelers, who typically must make their plans in advance.
Figures from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority support the theory that Las Vegas appeals more these days to budget-focused drive-in visitors. Car traffic into Las Vegas was up 2.9 percent year over year in the first four months of 2010, and up 1.9 percent on Interstate 15 at the California border. Overall visitor volume to Las Vegas was up 1.3 percent in the first four months of 2010, the authority has reported.
The drive-in trend poses broader implications for Las Vegas, because car-borne consumers typically spend less than their air-traveling counterparts.
"A drive-in customer looks different from a fly-in customer, and more value-oriented consumers have been reflected in room rates, gaming spend and other retail sales categories over the better part of the last two to three years," Gordon said. "It's not typical to see a group of customers toting a cooler full of their own food and beer through the lobby of a multibillion-dollar property, but it's happening today."
Bargain-hunters alone aren't behind dwindling air travel into Las Vegas. Constraints on the supply of flights into McCarran could also be hurting traffic, Gordon said.
McCarran averaged 464.4 flights a day in May, down 4.5 percent from 486.3 daily flights in May 2009.
Those cuts could eventually reverse, though.
With flight numbers off 4.5 percent but passenger counts down just 1.6 percent, that means planes arrive fuller than they did a year ago, Gordon noted. Expect airlines to increase flights into McCarran once plane occupancy hits a ceiling.
"The economic climate is difficult for those kinds of investments (added flights) to be made," Gordon said. "If there's some uncertainty in regards to the economy, airlines may be operating more cautiously than they once were. But assuming there's an extended period of high occupancy and leveraged-up pricing, there may be an incentive for airlines to consider adding capacity."
Any analysis of airport-traffic trends should also weigh connecting flights and air travel among locals. Gordon said it's difficult to quantify those categories separately, but shifts in those areas could be affecting McCarran's traffic as well.
Still, declines at McCarran aren't as steep these days. Passenger counts in February and March, for example, fell 6.2 percent and 4 percent respectively.
"Volume is not free-falling like it was," Gordon said.
US Airways saw the biggest decline in May traffic into McCarran, with the airline's passenger count tumbling 56.2 percent year over year to 197,247 fliers. US Airways ranked No. 5 in traffic for the month, down from No. 2 a year earlier. The company slashed flights in February as part of a job- and cost-cutting effort to refocus on the airline's hubs in Philadelphia, Phoenix and Charlotte, N.C.
Southwest remained McCarran's No. 1 carrier in May, with 1.34 million arriving and departing passengers. That's down 1.3 percent from 1.36 million fliers in May 2009.
Delta jumped to No. 2, with 356,358 passengers. That's an 11 percent gain from 320,993 passengers a year ago, when the airline ranked No. 3 at McCarran.
United and American rounded out McCarran's top five airlines in May.
Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at jrobison @reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4512.