McCarran traffic counts rise but major carriers show declines

The passenger tallies at McCarran International Airport continued to rise in November but with signs that the yearlong rebound has started to lose altitude.

The number of people passing through the airport, arriving and departing, rose 3.9 percent from one year ago, to 3.3 million. This meant Las Vegas flights were slightly fuller as the number of seats available went up 3.4 percent.

However, three of the five largest carriers -- with commonly owned and managed United and Continental counted as one -- showed declines and the other two are possibly headed in that direction. All five posted weaker results in November than in the first 11 months of the year.

Most notably, market leader Southwest, with 38 percent of total traffic, carried 0.4 percent fewer people in November as it reduced its seat count by 1.7 percent. For the year to date, Southwest has carried 1.7 percent more passengers.

Of the two majors that grew, American has already warned that unspecified cuts are coming now that it is operating in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. US Airways has started putting its previously announced schedule reductions into effect, with its December seat count on course to sink 21 percent from a year ago.

Extra thrust from smaller airlines kept McCarran growing overall, led by the 239 percent surge by discounter Spirit. Alaska, Allegiant, JetBlue and Frontier all came in with double-digit percentage increases .

Several international carriers continued to build their presence, particularly Canada's WestJet, Aero Mexico, Mexico's Volaris, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. Overall, foreign traffic rose 29 percent.

A nationwide drop in air cargo traffic in recent months could signal problems for airlines. Some see the drop as a warning of declining business confidence that could spill over to the passenger side.

"Air freight decline has been a good indicator of wider economic weakness in the past," the trade group noted in its December forecast, "and we think that is what is being signaled by the data today."

The group prepared two forecasts, one if the economy continues as expected and another if the Europe's financial woes degenerate into a full-blown banking crisis. In North America, the group estimated, a 2 percent growth in airline capacity could turn into a 0.5 percent contraction in the worst-case scenario.

The schedules that the airlines have already set for McCarran show 1.7 percent more seats in the first half of 2012 than during the same period this year. However, Credit Suisse analyst Joel Simkins has written that some variables could come back to sting Las Vegas, including what American does in bankruptcy and jet fuel prices.

For the year to date, the 38.3 million people who have traveled through McCarran marked a 4.4 percent increase from 2010.

Contact reporter Tim O'Reiley at or 702-387-5290.

The top five carriers at McCarran International Airport
November passengersPercent changeYear-to-date passengersPercent change
Delta 308,000 -4.83,758,000-1.4
United/Continental305,000 -16.23,894,000-10
American191,000 2.9 2,279,0007.6
US Airways180,000 1.3 2,293,0007.7
McCarran total3,318,0003.938,275,000 4.4
SOURCE: McCarran International Airport