Numbers Game: Dip In Air Traffic Hurts Las Vegas The recession has hit every part of the airline industry hard. There are fewer tourists dragging suitcases past the ringing slot machines and glitzy billboards that line the terminals at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas, where air traffic is down 15 percent.
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Numbers Game: Dip In Air Traffic Hurts Las Vegas

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Numbers Game: Dip In Air Traffic Hurts Las Vegas

Numbers Game: Dip In Air Traffic Hurts Las Vegas

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Airports are not as crowded as they used to be. Security lines are shorter. It's easier to get a seat at the gate. It's all very pleasant, until you remember that it's a symptom of recession. We're going to hear how a major airport and a relatively small airline are coping with the fact that fewer people are flying. NPR's Ted Robbins has both reports as he wraps up our series "Troubled Skies."

Unidentified Man #1: Tower 544, ground, turn left onto Bravo (unintelligible)…

TED ROBBINS: Listen carefully. Guess which airport we're in.

Unidentified Man #2: All right, B1 through 30 can line up along (unintelligible)

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #3: No matter who you are…

Mr. ELVIS PRESLEY (Musician): Thank you very much…

Unidentified Man #3: …you need your own ticket and I.D. to enter the security checkpoint.

ROBBINS: I bet that last one gave it away. Not many airports have slot machines. It's Las Vegas's McCarran Airport. It's among the busiest in North America. But unlike other large airports, it's not a major hub. To bend a phrase, what lands in Vegas stays in Vegas.

Ms. CATHY TULL (Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority): They're not flying through. They're not going to someplace else. They're arriving at McCarran.

ROBBINS: Cathy Tull is with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. Since last fall, traffic at U.S. airports has dropped an average of 10 percent. In Las Vegas, the drop has been 15 percent, with no sign of rebound. Cathy Tull says that hurts the whole town.

Ms. TULL: Las Vegas is unique in that we are really supported by one major industry, and so if there is a drop in air service which affects that industry, it affects the entire community.

ROBBINS: You notice it as soon as you leave the airport.

Unidentified Woman (Shuttle bus announcer): For your safety and those around you, we ask that you please remain seated until the bus comes to a complete stop.

ROBBINS: A shuttle takes visitors to the Las Vegas rent-a-car facility, where 11 companies have counters, including Advantage, locally owned by Maria Romano(ph).

Ms. MARIA ROMANO (Car Rental Agent): Yes, we don't have the tourists coming and renting cars, and they're not obviously filling the hotel rooms, and they're not out there filling the restaurants.

ROBBINS: Romano says she's had to downsize, like everyone else here.

Ms. ROMANO: We had about 87 employees, and when we decided to make the correction, we went down to 65. And then also we adjusted our fleets as well.

ROBBINS: How many cars did you get rid of?

Ms. ROMANO: Well, we ran about 1,500 cars, and we're probably down to about 900 cars right now.

ROBBINS: Fewer airplanes are flying here too, which cuts airport revenue. Depending on the aircraft, McCarran gets $250 to $500 each time a plane lands and takes off.

Randall Walker is head of aviation for Clark County, which runs McCarran. He's had to cut $30 million from the airport's budget since January. He's left positions unfilled and some smaller things unfilled, too.

Mr. RANDALL WALKER (Clark County Official): We used to replace the hand towels anytime the roll got below 25 percent because the custodian is not in there constantly and he didn't want - we didn't want it ever to run out. So now we don't replace them 'til they go out. That saves about $300,000 a year.

ROBBINS: Concessions are also down. And remember, this is Vegas.

Mr. WALKER: Our biggest reduction here is our gaming - our slot machine revenue.

ROBBINS: While slot machines may be unique to Vegas, falling airport traffic is not. Flights are down 25 percent in Cincinnati, 20 percent in Tampa, more than 10 percent at Chicago O'Hare. Downturns do have a bright spot, however. Because there are fewer passengers, this is a good time to do maintenance or even to build. Walker says McCarran decided to raise money through bonds and go ahead with plans to build a $1.5 billion, third terminal.

Mr. WALKER: It's easier to build things because when you have to take things out of service, you're not impacting the operation as much. Also, we're getting a lot better bids than we used to, 'cause there's a lot of construction companies out there that aren't as busy as they used to be.

ROBBINS: The new terminal is scheduled to open in 2012. By then, Las Vegas is betting more people will be flying. That's a bet the town has made and won before.

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