McCarran’s $2.4 billion Terminal 3 receives first flights

While waiting for her Virgin Atlantic Airways flight to London, Hazel Griffin of Oxford, England, rendered a distinctly British verdict on the difference between McCarran International Airport’s old Terminal 2 and new Terminal 3.

"They are poles apart," said Griffin. "It’s chalk and cheese."

After five years of construction, the $2.4 billion T3 went into service Wednesday with the standard official speeches and platoon of showgirls, celebrity impersonators and stage performers. Virgin Atlantic and three other airlines took up residence. Another 11 international carriers will move in today.

Against the sometimes loud backdrop, Griffin played up her newfound celebrity as the T3’s first departing traveler.

"I’ll always be the first person through the airport," she said jokingly. "Maybe they should put up a plaque for me."

Other passengers marveled at the difference between the cramped, four-gate international facility at Terminal 2, which was built more than two decades ago as a charter flight terminal, and T3’s 14 gates, with seven for international use, as well as spacious new passport and customs facilities.

"This is a lot better, and you get through in less time (than T2)," added Gary Lewe, a Royal Air Force pilot from Edinburgh, Scotland, who was on his way to training at Creech Air Force Base. "And I wasn’t expecting a champagne arrival."

But then again, he was on the first plane ever to use the new terminal – a Virgin Atlantic 747 from London that arrived 16 minutes early.

For Clark County Department of Aviation director Randall Walker, today comes the toughest test: Thursday rivals Sunday as the busiest day of the week.

"(Today) is when I exhale," he said. "No matter how much you walk it, and we have walked it a lot, there will be places where we haven’t put signs where they are needed. But it is a great relief to finally see everything work, at least the way we planned it."

Some passengers already had their suggestion box entries ready.

"This is larger and more clear and more facilities than the old building," said Jean-Pierre Cheynet. "But one detail. There is nothing to eat or drink here."

Cheynet was part of a small group from Paris that arrived at noon for a British Airways flight scheduled for 8:45 p.m. The food court and sit-down restaurants are all inside security, and the Transportation Security Administration wouldn’t allow entry sooner than three hours before departure.

Likewise, Maria Keltomaki, who showed up at 10 a.m. for a return trip to Helsinki, Finland, only to be disappointed that there was no place to kill time, other than a single newsstand.

"But it does look very practical and functional," she said.

Pat Hovell of London said there should be more shops at the east end of T3, amid the international gates.

And some passengers said they didn’t want to see T3 at all.

Tiffany and Jamie Miskow of Calgary, Canada, said both The Mirage resort and their cabdriver directed them to T3 for WestJet, though the Canadian carrier won’t move in until today. Like some other misdirected WestJet passengers and even one for Southwest Airlines, they had to board a shuttle bus to reach their correct terminal.

Auto docking, a system that uses lasers to guide planes to the gate, was given a careful debut. The first two flights – by Virgin Atlantic and Panama’s Copa Airlines – still used the a member of the ground crew waving the orange stick that have been fixtures on tarmacs for decades.

"We had the laser on, but we were told by the aviation authorities to use the signallers, too," said Bolivar Dominguez, the Copa pilot.

He explained that using a signaller was a safety measure – a backup when using the lasers for the first time.

"The lasers calibrated perfectly," he said, stopping the plane on the designated mark.

Even if an airline decides to use the lasers, the final call on any flight rests with the pilot. Although the lasers are new to McCarran, they have been installed at numerous other airports.

"It’s all coming together," said Bonabian, who has overseen T3 work since 2006, when McCarran began buying residences as the prelude to moving Russell Road. "It was a good challenge, but I think it looks good," he said.

Contact reporter Tim O’Reiley at toreiley@review or 702-387-5290.

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