Passenger counts for McCarran in May up 5.1 percent

Passenger traffic at McCarran International Airport continued to grow in May, with more than half of the gains coming from established market leader Southwest and resurgent Spirit.

The 3.65 million travelers who passed through the airport marked a 5.1 percent improvement over the same month last year. This coincides with rising visitor counts, particularly for conventions and trade shows, and airlines adding Las Vegas flights to their schedules after three years of cuts.

With projected schedules for the second half of the year showing monthly seat counts about 5 percent higher than in 2010, the foundation has been laid for a continued upswing in passengers, a critical component of the resort-oriented economy.

The passenger count for Southwest, which easily has the largest McCarran market share at 38 percent, was up 4.2 percent for the month. Counts for all but three other domestic carriers also grew.

Spirit, a discounter known for low base fares but arrays of fees for things such as carry-on bags, tripled its passenger count from a small base. Wednesday it said it would begin four round trips a day to Oakland, Calif., in August, directly taking on Southwest. United, Virgin America and others fly to nearby San Francisco.

Although never one of the big players at McCarran, Spirit peaked at 568,000 passengers in 2007. But as Spirit whittled its schedules down to two flights a day in 2009, the carrier's passenger total sank nearly two-thirds, to 205,000. Backed by $171 million raised through its initial public stock offering in May, the airline now plans to expand its presence in several cities.

Spirit has either started or announced it would begin service to Dallas; Portland, Ore.; Los Angeles; and Chicago, in addition to Oakland. A company spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment on the overall strategy or potential new routes.

Reacting to the Oakland announcement, Denver-based aviation consultant Michael Boyd said, "Do they really want to kick Southwest in the you know what? But there is a lot of traffic between Las Vegas and the Bay Area."

However, he added, "I don't think Spirit is consciously going after Southwest. They are just trying to get a foothold in the market."

With 233,000 Las Vegas passengers in this year's first five months, Spirit has already surpassed its total for all of 2009 and could top 2010 this month.

United, one of the largest local airlines, continued cuts following its merger with Continental and reported its passenger count had declined by a fourth. In a first-quarter earnings conference call, United Continental Holdings executives cited Las Vegas as a prime city where flight schedules were being realigned as a result of the merger.

Most international carriers posted increases except British Airways and XL Airways of France. Volaris, a Mexico-based discounter, saw its traffic drop in May after April discounts marking the inauguration of Las Vegas service expired.

For the year to date, passenger totals rose 3.4 percent, to 16.75 million.

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