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Vegas Airport Traffic Slowly Rebounds But Will It Last?

Madhu Unnikrishnan

August 17th, 2020

Perhaps no other statistic illustrates the pandemic’s effect on U.S. travel than traffic figures from McCarran International Airport (LAS) in Las Vegas. In April, 152,716 passengers traveled through the airport. During 2019, the airport handled nearly that much traffic in a single day (141,000 passengers).

In this week’s issue of Airline Weekly, we looked at what the pandemic may mean for airports as airlines signal they’ll be smaller in the fall and as the recovery stalls. But it’s worth zeroing in on Las Vegas to show just how uncertain the situation is, as new numbers from this summer reveal a pickup in traffic through McCarran. But plenty of questions remain.

LAS, in fact, was on track to have its best year ever. Last year, almost 52 million passengers traveled through the airport. In the first two months of this year, the airport was on track to top that by about 500,000 passengers. January traffic was 6.6% above 2019, and February was up 6.5%.

In March, traffic started to collapse, reaching a low in April. May traffic us was about double April’s and in June, after the casinos reopened, traffic was over 1 million. The airport hasn’t yet reported data from July. August schedules look better, but it’s unclear if that will last after Oct. 1, when airlines start downsizing. Leisure travel is fueling the first wave of airline recovery, and there are few leisure destinations that can top Las Vegas.

Remember, though, there’s more to Vegas than gaming. In a typical year, the airport and city see an enormous amount of business traffic from convention attendees. The industry generates more than $6 billion in economic activity in the city in a normal year. Almost 7 million people attended conventions and trade shows in Las Vegas last year, and 70% of those people arrived by air.

This year, and part of next, won’t be normal, though (to state the obvious). Already, the landmark CES convention has been called off for January. The show this year had more than 180,000 attendees in 2020. Sporting events, concerts, and shows have largely been cancelled or have had attendance capped at 50 people.

So not a typical year. It’s hard to determine what the future looks like. Leisure travel is expected to bounce back faster than business travel, which both helps and hurts LAS. Airlines are planning to be smaller, which could mean less air service to LAS, but it probably won’t be affected to the same degree as smaller markets. LAS has frozen its rates and charges, to give airlines clarity on what it might cost to fly to the airport. “Leisure travel has carried us, and if our costs spiked we’d lose that discretionary traveler,” said Rosemary Vassiliadis, Clark County director of aviation.

Madhu Unnikrishnan

August 17th, 2020

Photo credit:  McCarran International Airport

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