Against a continually weak global backdrop, international flights emerged as a relative bright spot at McCarran International Airport in 2009.
Both the number of seats on nonstop service to foreign destinations and passengers riding in them grew in low-single-digit percentages compared with 2008, even as the number of weekly flights dropped slightly. The lineup of carriers changed over the course of 2009. British Airways launched daily flights to London Heathrow Airport in October while other carriers such as BMI and Aviacsa either cut back or dropped out entirely.
Still, the overall results stood in stark contrast to the almost constant string of schedule cuts and declining passenger counts over the course of the year for the domestic carriers.
"Las Vegas was a natural destination for us," said British Airways spokesman John Lampl on Wednesday. " It has gone better than we projected. Just looking at today’s flight, it is sold out and tomorrow is slightly oversold."
A particular boost to traffic, he added, has been the decline of the dollar, making Las Vegas and the rest of the country a relatively cheap vacation for international tourists. This phenomenon has helped to partially offset some of the visitor declines seen throughout the city.
On the other hand, the large majority of ticket buyers have come from Europe, with relatively few from Las Vegas, Lampl added.
The French airline XL has already announced it will begin twice-weekly service from Paris in May. Beyond that, airport spokesman Chris Jones declined to comment on what else might be in the works.
"We continue to work with the (Las Vegas) Convention and Visitors Authority to bring more international flights to Las Vegas," he said.
In December, the 26,606 international seats available weekly marked a 2.2 percent gain from a year ago, even as the number of flights dropped by three to 170. For the 11 months through November, the passenger count rose by 4.5 percent to 1.9 million.
By contrast, the passenger total for all of McCarran went down 8.7 percent during the 11 months as the number of weekly seats fell 6.8 percent in December.
Just over half of the 17 destinations from Las Vegas were spread across Canada, with Air Canada and discounter Westjet carrying just over half of the international passenger total. Four other destinations were in Mexico, with Frankfurt, Germany; Seoul, South Korea; and two London airports the only places that required flying over oceans.
Jones noted that when the $2.6 billion Terminal 3 is finished in mid-2012, McCarran will grow from four to six gates configured to handle customs and immigration.
For the entire industry, a recent report by the International Air Transport Association detected a slight recovery in world trade helped lift passenger numbers slightly on international flights during October, driven by demand in economy-class seating.
The lobbying group stressed the results are off an extremely weak year-ago comparison, when the recession took hold and the number of people flying fell sharply. Fares are down significantly from pre-recession levels, but total passenger numbers have now recovered about half of last year’s drop.
"Premium and economy passenger numbers are now around 6 percent points above their respective low points, but are still well below early 2008 levels," IATA said.
McClatchy News contributed to this report.