WASHINGTON — McCarran International Airport will receive additional customs agents to help speed the flow of overseas visitors through its newest terminal, Las Vegas officials and Sen. Harry Reid announced Wednesday.
An increase in customs agents to check in arrivals aims to keep pace with the growing number of international flights to Terminal 3, the $2.4 billion facility that opened in June 2012. The tourism industry says long waits leave a bad first impression of Las Vegas at a location where the city needs to put its best foot forward.
“For quite some time, too many international travelers have experienced lengthy delays because of staffing issues at customs at McCarran airport,” Reid said during a call with reporters. “These new officers will shorten the customs process and allow tourists to spend their time spending money and enjoying the many attractions we have rather than waiting in line at the airport.”
Reid gave a number for the new agents but immediately said he misspoke and that he would not make it public at the request of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
“This is like you don’t know how many FBI agents there are, they just don’t want that known. People would use that to our disadvantage,” Reid said. “But take our word for it, it’s going to help a great deal.”
But Rep. Dina Titus earlier said McCarran would be getting 10 new agents, on top of 40 already stationed at the airport. The Las Vegas congresswoman, who sits on the House aviation subcommittee, checked with the agency before disclosing the number on Twitter last Friday and was not discouraged from doing so, a spokeswoman said.
The Review-Journal learned that the customs agency earlier transferred seven agents to Las Vegas from Los Angeles as McCarran recalibrated incoming visitor traffic generated through Terminal 3, which brought the current number to 40.
In recent letters to Customs and Border Protection, Nevada lawmakers had asked for seven more agents in Las Vegas.
Congress in the governmentwide spending bill it passed in January included money to hire 2,000 additional customs and border agents, and the agency is in the process of apportioning them across the country.
Before finalizing the confirmation this month of Gil Kerlikowski to become commissioner of customs, Reid sought assurances the Las Vegas matter would be one of the first Kerlikowski signed off on. Titus also pressed the customs agency.
It was not clear why Las Vegas was given more than requested, but Clark County Aviation Director Rosemary Vassiliadis said all hands would be welcomed.
“International air service has been one of our greatest success stories in recent years,” Vassiliadis said. “From 2009 to 2013 international passenger traffic has increased 41 percent, up to nearly 3 million last year alone. In addition, we know more growth is coming.”
Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority President and CEO Rossi Ralenkotter said the city’s goal is to increase its international customers from 17 percent of last year’s 7 million visitors to 30 percent within 10 years. Simply put, international travelers tend to stay longer and spend more money.
McCarran welcomes 190 weekly nonstop flights from more than 20 foreign cities. But more are expected soon from places such as Chile, since that nation has been added to the U.S. visa waiver program.
Also airlines from Canada, Panama and Switzerland either have recently or are about to add flights to Las Vegas.
Vassiliadis said McCarran has been able to meet its goal to move international visitors out of the airport within 20 minutes on average, and within 60 minutes at peak times, which she said was “a reasonable amount of time compared to any other large port.”
The additional customs agents will help — for now, Vassiliadis said.
“The numbers … we feel are great numbers for today and for the next year of what we know is coming, but we will keep on working with the (Customs and Border Patrol) and Congress as our growth continues.”
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.