Back in 2008, the Clark County Commission took a big gamble on whether it should go forward with a $2.4 billion expansion at what was then known as McCarran International Airport.
But with the Great Recession starting to wreak havoc on the local economy, there was genuine concern about whether adding 14 gates and spending billions of dollars was the right thing to do.
But commissioners forged ahead.
The new facility, to become known as Terminal 3, got the green light and on June 27, 2012 — 10 years ago on Monday — the doors opened at what would become the new Las Vegas port of entry for foreign travelers.
“T3 was a big gamble when it was approved as we were in the depths of the Great Recession,” said Brendan Bussmann, founder of Las Vegas-based B Global. “County leadership took the risk and it has paid off extensively to help grow the destination, especially allowing additional international customers to have the proper arrival experience.”
And the investment has paid off.
“The investment in T3 has proven itself over and over and over again,” Clark County Department of Aviation Director Rosemary Vassiliadis said in an interview.
“You recall, we had to go to the board and make a very tough decision on whether to go forward with this project back in 2008 while everything was plummeting,” she said. “We had started the design and preliminary work in 2005 and the contract went out in 2006. And all I could say (after the commission vote) was, ‘Oh my gosh, thank goodness.’”
Josh Swissman, founding partner of the Las Vegas-based Strategy Organization, said attracting international travelers is key because they spend more time in the city and spend more than their domestic counterparts.
“A decade on, the new terminal still — even though it doesn’t feel like it right now because there isn’t a ton of international travel — feels like a pretty relevant addition to the airport to help facilitate the comings and goings of the international traveler, which is a pretty important traveler to the destination,” said Swissman.
Vassiliadis said since the opening, the airport, now Harry Reid International, has seen 125 million passengers traveling to and from 146 cities with operations to 19 countries.
“The opening of Terminal 3 helped to firmly establish our airport as a true international destination,” said Amanda Bellarmino, assistant professor at UNLV’s William F. Harrah College of Hospitality. “It helped to expand the number of flights into the city, something that is continuing to expand today, and helped to modernize our airport in a way that was sorely needed. The ability of Las Vegas to handle increased air traffic is of paramount importance to the hospitality sector and the tax dollars that sector generates.”
While Vassiliadis said the international component of Terminal 3 is most important — seven of the 14 gates are dedicated to international arrivals — Terminal 3 was also important to the airport’s overall capacity. Congestion that had grown at Terminal 1 was spread out thanks to the other seven Terminal 3 gates that are dedicated to domestic air carriers and offer easy access to the 44 D gates.
“It gave us flexibility to accommodate more operations than we ever dreamed possible,” Vassiliadis said. “It gave us airport capacity in one of the more constrained areas that we had.”
That meant additional pickup and drop-off curb space — Terminal 3 is about a half-mile long — and less congestion at the Transportation Security Administration security checkpoints by splitting traffic between Terminals 1 and 3.
Vassiliadis said the benefits of Terminal 3 will be even more important in the future as international traffic picks up, especially with the special events Las Vegas has on its horizon. While soccer games at Allegiant Stadium will likely draw their fair share of international attention, Vassiliadis said planning already is underway for November 2023’s Formula One car race in Las Vegas. The race cars are expected to be flown into the airport as cargo. Racing fans are expected to be drawn to Las Vegas from around the world for the event with the possibility of charter flights just for that event.
The county already announced it is acquiring land on the western side of the airport for additional general aviation space to accommodate fly-in fans on corporate jets for Formula One and 2024’s Super Bowl.
Half-million international arrivals
Reid officials say just over 15 million passengers have flown in and out of the airport in the first four months of 2022, a 74.6 percent increase over the first four months of 2021. Of those, 548,813 were international arrivals, a 603.9 percent increase from last year.
The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority on Friday posted the estimated number of international arrivals to Las Vegas. There were just under 1 million arrivals in 2021, a 13.8 percent decline from 2020. It is hoping to see a return to the record 2014 level of arrivals of just under 6 million passengers.
Most of those arrivals — about 3 million — came from Canada and Mexico. The other top countries from which tourists arrived were the United Kingdom, Germany, Brazil, South Korea and Australia.
The LVCVA acknowledged that Terminal 3 was responsible for much of the city’s international tourism growth.
“The arrival of T3 provided critical infrastructure needed to help Vegas grow and attract more visitors,” said Lori Nelson-Kraft, senior vice president of communications for the LVCVA.
Swissman noted that the Biden administration’s plan to lift its requirement that international air travelers to the U.S. take a COVID-19 test within a day of boarding their flights will help boost visits to Las Vegas.
“I don’t know that it will be like turning the faucet from not being on at all to being on full blast, but it definitely will help with the continued slow and steady increase in international travel coming back to the destination,” he said.
Bussmann added that the foresight of Terminal 3 will help the comeback from the COVID-19 malaise.
“As we continue to recover from the pandemic, T3’s recovery is just beginning as we start to gain the international segment back,” Bussmann said.
“Let’s hope that the current geopolitical and economic headwinds do not curtail our recent ability to fully open these markets again. T3 gives us the ability to attract additional international operators and routes to the market and hopefully grow the base to other destinations in Europe and Asia. There is opportunity to help us reach these new market segments but if it was not for the foresight of T3, we would not be in the position we are today to explore those opportunities.”
There’s Terminal 1 and Terminal 3 at Harry Reid International Airport. Where’s Terminal 2?
Terminal 2, formerly known as the Charter-International Terminal. occupied the area just north of Terminal 1 and had two gates.
When airport officials authorized the new Terminal 3, Terminal 2 was kept open for international arrivals. It eventually was demolished in 2016.
Clark County Department of Aviation Director Rosemary Vassiliadis said it still hasn’t been determined how the land where Terminal 2 stood is going to be used.
Meanwhile, plans are still going forward to consider building a supplemental airport south of Las Vegas in the Ivanpah Valley. Vassiliadis said the environmental impact statements for Ivanpah are expected to be completed by the end of this year.