Airline planners land in Las Vegas for international conference

Local visitor industry leaders extended their formal greeting Friday to the World Routes conference, the most visible part of a three-year effort to land the conference, and to bring more foreign tourists to Las Vegas.

World Routes, which starts its formal program Sunday, matches airline executives and route planners with airport and tourism officials as they size each other up for more flights. The promise of the extra exposure that comes with being the host city led the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the Clark County Department of Aviation and local resorts to pledge $2.2 million in cash and various free services in 2010 to land this year’s World Routes.

Total attendance is expected to run 2,800 at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

The authority has set a goal of boosting the share of visitors from foreign countries to 30 percent of the total over the coming decade, up from the current 17 percent. To do that, they have not only posted more marketing people and opened more branch offices overseas, but pushed for expanded flight schedules into McCarran International Airport.

Authority CEO Rossi Ralenkotter predicted the number of flights would increase about 10 percent over the next 15 months, but he would not disclose the source of that growth. With seasonal fluctuations, McCarran averages about 190 flights per week.

He did note, however, “interest” shown by Asian airlines formed part of the basis for his forecast.

Although the overall passenger counts at McCarran have plateaued for more than a year and played a role in tamping down visitor totals, international traffic has continued to grow. Last year, international passenger rates grew 9.9 percent even though the entire airport went up only 0.4 percent. Through August of this year, international traffic rose 4.9 percent while all of McCarran was off 0.1 percent. International passengers still count for less than 10 percent of McCarran’s total.

However, the source of that success comes largely from north of the border. WestJet and Air Canada carried 51 percent of the 1.95 million international passengers this year, with United Kingdom rivals British Airways and Virgin Atlantic a distant second at a 21 percent market share.

The improved international results have come in the face of a changing lineup over the years, as carriers such as Philippine Airlines and airberlin dropped Las Vegas but Panama’s Copa and Mexico’s Interjet have launched service. Edelweiss, a unit of German giant Lufthansa, announced last month it would start nonstops between Las Vegas and Zurich on May 5.

Having airline schedule planners see Las Vegas in person, said Clark County Aviation Director Rosemary Vassiliadis, makes a stronger impression than just photos or charts.

The 55 meetings scheduled with airline managers during the three days of World Routes will stress Asia and South America, where the schedules are still thin.

Besides nonstops, local officials hope to persuade airlines of the virtues of close connections with international flights to hubs for one-stop service. In that vein, Delta Air Lines, the second-largest carrier at McCarran, said it would boost its flights between Las Vegas and Seattle from once daily to five a day in conjunction with increased trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic schedules out of Seattle. At the same time, flights from San Francisco and Los Angeles were increased.

Harry Harteveldt, a San Francisco-based airline analyst with the consulting firm Hudson Crossing, said a growing number of vacationers like to tour the West by starting from one of the three cities and leaving from another.

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