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As Harry Reid airport grows, so does the need for another airport

Updated February 6, 2023 - 9:02 am

There are plenty of things that give economist Jeremy Aguero sleepless nights.

Last week, Aguero, of Las Vegas-based Applied Analysis, admitted airport capacity has become one of those issues.

“There are a lot of things that worry me,” Aguero said. “I’m worried about I-15. I’m worried about water policy. I’m worried about the airport. I’m worried about having enough employees. This is one of a number of things that keeps me up at night. I don’t know if that should be a determinant factor, but the fact that we are going to hit capacity before we have a plan in place to expand capacity, yeah, that’s one of the top five things that keeps me up at night.”

Aguero also noted his airport capacity concern last month during his keynote speech at the Vegas Chamber’s Preview 2023 forecasting event.

Clark County Department of Aviation Director Rosemary Vassiliadis affirmed in an interview that growth at Harry Reid International Airport is on a trajectory to reach its capacity of between 63 million and 65 million annual passengers by around 2030. Reid airport is expected next week to release 2022 passenger totals, and it’s likely to be the most in history, close to 53 million.

The earliest a new reliever airport, south of Las Vegas in the Ivanpah Valley between Jean and Primm, could be operational is 2037, she said.

What happens in those seven years between 2030 and 2037? No one wants to speculate because so many things could change between now and then.

The best Vassiliadis and her airport team can do is shepherd the Southern Nevada Supplemental Airport plan along and work with dozens of stakeholders — federal and state government agencies, regional transportation leaders, water and utility companies among them — to keep the reliever airport on track to open.

In the meantime, that means finding solutions to airport logjams at a time when Reid airport and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority are trying to increase the number of flights to Las Vegas to boost the tourism economy.

“In having our consultants work on all of that, we know if everything goes perfectly, with our rate of sustainable growth, we feel that we’re going to start getting hit with delays on the airfield by the end of 2029 or maybe by 2030,” Vassiliadis said. “Unfortunately, it means painful years for airlines and that we need a second commercial airport.”

And pain for the airlines could also mean pain for the flying public that may see fewer travel options as capacity erodes.

Success led to problems

The airport grew into the capacity problem as a result of being so successful.

In a January presentation before the LVCVA board of directors, Joel Van Over, senior director at Ailevon Pacific, an aviation consultant that works with Reid airport and the LVCVA, said the Las Vegas airport has rebounded from COVID-19 pandemic restraints faster than any airport in the country.

In 2022, three new airlines started or announced they would be flying into Las Vegas, adding a combined 310,000 seats into the market annually. Airlines already serving Las Vegas added nonstop service to 36 markets in 2022, including 17 new domestic markets.

Among the big movers for Las Vegas was discount carrier Breeze Airways, founded by former JetBlue CEO David Neeleman; discounter Spirit Airlines, which is in the process of being acquired by JetBlue; Denver-based discounter Frontier Airlines, which added seven markets to Reid; and market leader Southwest Airlines, which will have the highest number of daily flights to and from Las Vegas, 243, by March.

Ailevon Managing Director Oliver Lamb said Reid airport has a problem most airports would be envious of.

“I have to say how phenomenal it is to be in a position where we are even asking these questions, as it’s never a bad problem to have to solve for growth,” Lamb said in an email. “After several tough years for Las Vegas through the pandemic, to have not only recovered pre-pandemic passenger numbers but exceeded them is reflective of just how popular Las Vegas is. This level of demand demonstrates not only Las Vegas’ appeal to visitors, but also the airline-friendly environment that Las Vegas has built.

“It’s timely that you should be asking questions about how Las Vegas continues to cater for this appeal, and how we all work together to ensure Las Vegas remains the best destination in the world,” he said.

Accommodating more flights

While Ailevon works to recruit more flights to Las Vegas, Vassiliadis is responsible for finding a way to accommodate them.

She said one strategy is “smoothing the peaks,” that is convincing airlines to schedule their flights to times when it’s less busy. That’s not always easy because airline networks are built to connect passengers on flights to their final destinations. Over the years, Reid officials have tried to keep the airport as a destination airport and not a connecting point to another place. But carriers like Southwest have established crew bases here and routinely connect passengers through Reid.

Another strategy being pursued by Ailevon is to convince airlines to fly larger planes. In some cases, that has worked as Southwest’s fleet is expanding to higher-gauge planes with capacities of 170 passengers instead of 140.

Part of the reason for seeking larger planes is that there is a finite number of planes that can use Southern Nevada’s airspace. Bigger planes mean more people coming in per landing interval.

That brings in another problem the airport must address — the abundance of private jets and general aviation. With the explosion of sports and entertainment events in Southern Nevada, more and more private jets are finding their way to Reid airport. It’s expected to be put to the test in November when the first-ever Formula One Las Vegas Grand Prix is staged on the Strip.

Vassiliadis said incentives, such as less expensive fuel rates, are put in place to encourage private pilots to fly into Henderson Executive Airport or North Las Vegas Airport instead of Reid airport. But its proximity to the Strip has always been one of the big draws of having the airport so close to the action, and if you have the money to fly in a private jet, a few more dollars for fuel isn’t going to make a difference.

New standards

Lamb pointed out that the aviation industry is constantly changing, which adds to the challenge of recruiting additional air capacity.

Among the challenges are new federally mandated security standards, aviation support capacity, such as ground handlers, airfield capacity limits, changes to runway rate limits by the Federal Aviation Administration, air traffic control limits and hours and availability of Transportation Security Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents.

“Our goal at APAC is to ensure that we overcome these constraints and facilitate greater air access to Las Vegas,” Lamb said. “We seek to accommodate the demand, with the infrastructure that we have. Even in the face of record demand, we work diligently with the airlines and airport to ensure the smoothest possible experience. As examples of how we do this, we’ve worked with airlines to boost flights outside of peak times, or use larger aircraft: For instance, larger aircraft in February will see 10 percent more seats at Harry Reid despite adding only 1 percent more flights at the airport.”

For now, Southwest Airlines said it’s seeing no capacity problems at its operations at Reid airport.

“It’s normal that as an airport grows, you work on expanding capacity in different areas. You work on taxiways and systems. These are all normal course of business and Harry Reid seems to have a good plan and coordination with the airlines, so we’re happy with that,” Andrew Watterson, Southwest’s chief operating officer, said.

But everyone involved with the airport knows avoiding peak flying times and changing the gauge of aircraft used is only a temporary solution. The answer seems to be building a new supplemental airport south of Las Vegas, which introduces a new set of issues.

Studies continue

Government officials have been talking about building an airport south of the city for more than two decades. The conversation paused during the pandemic, but Vassiliadis said quarterly meetings with stakeholders have resumed to keep the process moving.

Environmental studies for land necessary to build a new airport are nearly complete. Airspace studies are continuing, Vassiliadis said, as is ground transportation planning. The Las Vegas Water District is involved as well as Southwest Gas and NV Energy. Brightline, the high-speed rail company planning a route between Victorville, California, and Las Vegas is at the table. Taxi companies and other ground transportation companies are in the loop. Even the Boring Co., which plans to drill more underground tunnels in Las Vegas, has been contacted, and at least 11 consultant companies have their own roles in the planning process.

It’s too early to consider how operations at Reid airport and the new supplemental airport would co-exist.

Would the new airport primarily serve international airlines and cargo? Would an airline have flights to and from both Reid airport and the new airport? Those questions will remain unanswered until the project is further along.

Jim Gibson, who heads the Clark County Commission and the LVCVA board of directors, said there may not be any opportunity to accelerate development of a new airport.

“It’s obvious that over the course of time, we’re going to need a reliever airport,” Gibson said in an interview. “The things that we’re doing out there today are things that are consistent with the direction she’s (Vassiliadis) seeing in our actions.”

One thing Gibson doesn’t want to see is for a new airport to become a viable alternative for Southern Californians who can’t get flights at Los Angeles International Airport or any of the airports in and around there.

Gibson said things could be done to accelerate the development process, but because of all the moving parts, it won’t be easy.

“We haven’t talked about all the details, but there is a next level for airspace and airfield processes that we can work on that would enable us to get more out of what we currently have,” Gibson said. “I feel comfortable that we’re doing everything we can do at this point.”

But even that may not prevent some future sleepless nights for Las Vegans.

Contact Richard N. Velotta at rvelotta@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Follow @RickVelotta on Twitter.

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