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Las Vegas, travel industry in uncharted territory amid pandemic

Updated May 26, 2020 - 5:59 am

As states and cities throughout the U.S. slowly reopen to business, airlines and airports are taking steps to convince the traveling public that flying is no more dangerous than going to the grocery store.

Since the first coronavirus-related closures hit Nevada in March, passenger volumes at McCarran International Airport have fallen dramatically. In March alone, passenger traffic at McCarran fell by over 2 million people, a 53 percent drop from the same month in 2019.

It’s anybody’s guess when passenger traffic will return to the record-breaking numbers that Las Vegas’ airport saw in preceding years. Airport spokesman Chris Jones said airports globally must clear certain steps before that can occur.

“First, health concerns are paramount,” Jones said. “All travel — air or otherwise — will be limited until government and health officials determine it’s acceptable to lift restrictions on people’s movement, including stay-at-home orders, mandatory quarantines or prohibitions on air travel between certain countries.

“Once we’re past that phase, people will need a reason to travel,” Jones said. “For Las Vegas, there is not just the question of reopening the resorts and casinos, but also the other elements that attract visitors here: conventions, shows, bars and restaurants, sporting events and so on. As those amenities come back online, air travel will increase.”

Scott DeAngelo, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Allegiant Air, agreed that attractions in Las Vegas, including sporting events, need to reopen before any noticeable return of tourists occurs.

“Our two largest summer travel destinations, Orlando and Las Vegas, will need to reopen their flagship theme parks and casino resorts and, for that matter, NFL stadiums for us to see the next-step change in demand recovery,” DeAngelo said last week during Allegiant’s quarterly earnings call.

Safety measures

Jones also said the tourism industry must restore the public’s confidence that it’s safe to travel, whether that’s getting on an airplane or staying in a hotel.

Over the past several weeks, new safety procedures have been rolled out or announced by many airlines, including the major carriers serving McCarran.

The airport’s five busiest carriers — Southwest Airlines, Spirit Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and Frontier Airlines — are requiring or soon will require passengers to wear a mask or face covering.

Las Vegas-based Allegiant Air began issuing safety kits that include a mask, gloves and sanitizing wipes, but wearing a face covering is still optional, though encouraged, for the ultra-low-cost carrier.

Frontier, McCarran’s fifth-busiest carrier, announced it would begin screening passengers’ and employees’ temperatures June 1, with any reading of 100.4 degrees or higher resulting in the person not being allowed to fly or work that day.

“The health and safety of everyone flying Frontier is paramount and temperature screenings add an additional layer of protection for everyone onboard,” Frontier CEO Barry Biffle said in a statement.

McCarran also has ramped up cleaning and sanitizing efforts, implemented social distancing guidelines and asked that only ticketed passengers or those with airport business go inside its terminals, Jones said.

“The airport has been very aggressive in its cleaning processes, really since the beginning of this year,” Jones said. “We always take extra steps, such as increased cleanings during flu season, but with COVID-19 even more has been done, and will continue to be done.

“We also placed signage and markers on the floors to remind people to give others space. We’ll increase this and use staff to remind people of these expectations going forward, though so far we’ve observed most travelers are aware and will social distance without being asked. Such reminders will become a greater point of emphasis once there are more people traveling and inside the terminals again.”

McCarran doesn’t require travelers to wear a mask, but Jones noted that face coverings would be seen widely throughout the facility since most airlines do require travelers to wear them from check-in through deplaning.

“You’ll definitely see more masks/facial coverings at McCarran and other airports going forward,” Jones said.

McCarran also was the first airport in the country to install personal protective equipment vending machines, placing multiple machines featuring masks, gloves and hand sanitizer at various areas.

McCarran has not implemented temperature screenings, which Jones said he believes should be done on the federal level.

Biffle agreed, saying the Transportation Security Administration should spearhead that initiative.

“We would love for TSA and the airports to do it (temperature check),” Biffle said. “We think it should be done at the curb. Unfortunately, we can’t catch everybody at the different entrances; it’s not our property, either. What we can do is guarantee that once you get on board our aircraft, no one is going to have a fever on board.”

The Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies are considering the possibility of temperature screenings and other advanced safety protocols.

“As part of our ongoing screening efforts, DHS and our interagency partners are exploring the use of technologies through a phased, multi-layered approach to protect our nation from transmittal of potential health threats and illnesses, including the coronavirus, through travel,” the DHS said in an email.

Optimism

Even when restrictions on travel and mass gatherings are lifted, there remains a question of how many people will have discretionary income to use on leisure or business trips considering the widespread layoffs and furloughs.

“You then have to consider the financial repercussions of COVID-19. There’s widespread unemployment, and many businesses are struggling,” Jones said. “That affects people’s willingness and ability to travel, whether for a family getaway or a business event at which a company might no longer be able to exhibit, or send delegates.”

Despite the uncertain travel outlook for the remainder of the year, industry leaders are willing to bet Las Vegas will be among the first cities to see life pumped back into its tourism lifeline.

“History has shown Las Vegas has always been among the first destinations to bounce back after an economic downturn,” Jones said. “In partnership with our resorts, I’m confident that will happen again. But no one can put a hard timeline on any of these factors; the first priority is and will be getting the virus under control.”

Many resort properties are aiming to reopen June 1, pending approval from the Nevada Gaming Control Board.

Allegiant CEO Maury Gallagher said there’s pent-up travel demand due to the stay-at-home orders in Nevada and surrounding states, and he sees visitors as ready to get back to something resembling normal life.

“I know a lot of people who just want to get out and … rumble,” Gallagher said during the company’s earnings call. “People are tired of sitting at home.

“There is really no hard data that you can point at; in many ways, it’s opinion. Some people have an opinion that they’re going to go out and other people, they wouldn’t be caught outdoors if God came out and said it was all clear. It’s just going to be a wait and see as we feel our way through this.”

Contact Mick Akers at makers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2920. Follow @mickakers on Twitter.

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