McCarran Completes Tech-Rich Expansion

Jodi Richards
Published in: 

At $2.4 billion, the Terminal 3 expansion at Las Vegas McCarran International (LAS) is the airport's biggest project ever and the largest public works project in Nevada's history. In addition to a new 1.9-million-square-foot terminal, the on-time, under-budget project included other key infrastructure: an eight-level parking garage; a central utility plant; an underground transit system; stacked roadways; and ramp improvements.

The expansion increases the airport's capacity to 53 million annual passengers. Currently, it serves about 42 million per year. The project also focused on employing the very latest in technology to improve the passenger and tenant experience. The results will be debuted in three phases, beginning with the opening of the international gates in June, followed by domestic gates in July and finally the August relocation of two D-gate carriers that will use Terminal 3's ticketing and baggage claim facilities.

The project initially appeared on the airport's master plan in 1990, notes Clark County Director of Aviation Randall Walker. At that time, it was recommended that the airport construct two new buildings east of Concourse C. In 1998, Concourse D opened as a satellite facility tied to existing terminal infrastructure. The second recommendation under that master plan was a self-contained "unit terminal," and included a new parking garage and roadway system.

Around the turn of the decade, the airport started preparatory work for the Terminal 3 site, including the purchase of homes north of Concourse D. The new land eventually housed a relocated roadway, which in turn created a contiguous piece of property large enough for the expansion. After the road was relocated, cut and fill work was needed to bring the site to the correct elevation. Utilities were brought in and piers installed for the new terminal and parking garage. At the project's peak, it provided 1,800 jobs for the region; in total, nearly 10 million work-hours were logged.

Meeting Demand

Walker explains that the main goal of the expansion was to meet the airport's growing demand and increase the efficiency of its international facilities, while also creating a better space and boosting customer service.

Fully half of the new terminal is designated for international flights - seven of 14 gates. Walker describes Terminal 2, the previous home to LAS' international facilities, as "old, very antiquated [and] not adequate." Toward the end of its life, Walker estimates that Terminal 2 was handling 2.5 million passengers in a facility originally designed for about 2 million. "We had grown out of this facility and had some extreme limitations on how many flights we could handle," he reports, noting operational issues with turn efficiencies.


Project: Terminal 3 Expansion

Cost: $2.4 billion

Terminal Building: 1.9 million sq. ft.; 3 stories

Gates: 14

Parking Structure: 6,000 spaces; 8 levels

Other Major Components: Ticketing Lobby, Baggage Claim, TSA Checkpoints on 2 Levels, Expanded/Upgraded Customs & Border Protection Area, Underground Transit System, Apron Improvements, Stacked Roadway System

Program Manager/Construction Manager: Bechtel Corp.

Prime Design Consultant/Lead Architect: PGAL

Structural Engineer for Terminal: Walter P. Moore

Final Environmental Assessment: Ricondo & Assoc.

Terminal Building Construction: Perini Building Co.

Project Definition Manual (Phase 1): Ricondo & Assoc.

Power Connections: Harbor

Central Utility Plant: Penta Building

Structural Engineer for CPU: Wright Engineers

Baggage Handling System: 42,000 ft. of Conveyor, 18,000+ ft. of Catwalk, 16 In-Line Screeners, 73 High-Speed Diverters, 32 Carousels, 20 Vertisorters, 120 Over-Belt RFID Readers

BHS Design & Installation: Vanderlande

BHS Belt Curves: Transnorm

Common-Use Technology: ARINC

Boarding Pass Printers & RFID Bag Tags: IER

Gate Mgt. Software: Sabre

Aircraft Self-Docking Systems: Safegate

Digital Wayfinding: Four Winds Interactive

LED Displays: Daktronics

NEC Monitors & Peerless Brackets: Infax

Terminal Seating: Zoeftig

Roadway Tie-in: Aggregate Industries

Road Relocation & Terminal Roadway System: Las Vegas Paving

Roadway Signage: TAB Contractors

Preliminary Civil Work & Parking Garage: McCarthy Building Co.

Automated Transit System: Perini/Bombardier

Apron: TAB Contractors

Design Support for Apron & Aircraft Fueling System: Atkins

When Terminal 2 first opened in 1991, he explains, the airport's international traffic was limited and mainly comprised of seasonal charters. At its peak in the early 1990s, such business accounted for about 11% of LAS' total traffic. But as the airline business changed and low-cost carriers emerged, LAS' charter business faded into the background. At the same time, regularly scheduled international traffic started to increase.

"We would not have been able to grow the international traffic to what's scheduled this summer and fall with the increased frequencies we're getting from some of the international carriers unless we had opened T3," Walker notes. "There's just no way we could have squeezed the flights into T2 that are coming online the rest of this year."

The new Terminal 3 will meet LAS' needs today and into the future, Walker contrasts. The facility is designed to be expandable to up to 40 gates, including provisions for attendant capacity increases in ticketing, baggage claim and roadways.

An automated underground train connects Terminal 3 to the airport's D gates, a 45-gate satellite facility that is also connected to Terminal 1 by train. This provides the airport with the flexibility to service the D gates from both terminals and balance the levels of service between terminals 1 and 3 as needed.

The main portion of Terminal 1 dates back to 1985 and was designed for a maximum capacity of about 40 million passengers. "We have been doing more than that - even during the downturn - really doing more than the facility was designed for," he adds. "Terminal 3 will allow us to redirect some of the D-gate traffic to Terminal 3 and be able to de-peak some of the congestion points we have in Terminal 1 back to what its original design capacity was, and to provide a higher level of customer service."

With Terminal 3 in place, Terminal 2 will eventually be demolished.

Viva Las Techno

Many in the industry will focus on the new technologies LAS added to Terminal 3. "[It] is known far and wide as being one of the most progressive airports when it comes to technology," says Bechtel Corp. Aviation Practice Leader Steve Riano. As the airport's program and construction manager for 31 years, Bechtel served those functions during the Terminal 3 expansion.

"McCarran has always been at the forefront of figuring out how to get as much capacity out of the existing asset as they can. Technology really can increase the capacity and extend the life of a facility," says Riano, noting that LAS also looks for ways to use technology to enhance its passenger experience.

Bechtel LAS Project Manager Don Wright identifies the flexibility of Terminal 3 as its standout feature, citing common-use technology, self-service equipment and dynamic signage as key features.

"McCarran is an example of an airport where the owner really has got it right," says Wright. "Over the years, they've been able to provide facilities that add a lot of value and flexibility to the airlines. Where they can do things better than the airline, they do it; and everybody benefits."

Walker says that the new facility carries over technology elements from Terminal 1 such as free wireless, RFID bag tagging and common-use technology, but also takes the approach a step further. "We took all of the technology that we were aware of and built it into the terminal," he explains, noting adherence to International Air Transport Association process standards.

Terminal 3, he specifies, is 100% common use and includes 32 curbside check-in positions, 130 ticket lobby check-in positions, 203 self-service kiosks (that include the capability for self-tagging baggage), self-boarding gates, dynamic signage (1,150 LCDs and LEDs), interactive directories, Wi-Fi-enabled terminal and ramp, distributed antenna system, automated aircraft docking and 1,000 security cameras.

Technology allows the terminal to be extremely flexible and provides for the most efficient use of capacity, Walker explains. Resources can be managed by the airport staff, which is given the authority and software to manage gate assignments on a real-time basis.

During the project's planning phase, the airport deliberately decided to add some technology without knowing precisely how much of it would be used by carriers. When Terminal 3 opened, for instance, only two international carriers - Air Canada and WestJet - used the self-tagging technology. And one domestic carrier, JetBlue Airways, is currently using the self-boarding technology. Other airlines, however, are considering the options.

"Even though we didn't know who might use it, it was the technology that was available in the industry," recalls Walker, explaining that building in technology on the front end costs much less than retrofitting a completed terminal later. "The industry changes, and more and more carriers are looking for more of these kinds of dynamic and technology applications."

Walker acknowledges some risk in the proactive/speculative strategy, but remains confident that time will prove its logic. For example, self-tagging started mostly outside of the United States, but Walker expects to see a much higher percentage of domestic customers tagging their own bags in the next 10 years. And it's the same with self-boarding, he notes. While more common overseas, some U.S. carriers are currently testing it.

"We think it's a prudent risk," Walker explains. "Given what's happened in the last decade in technology applications at airports, I don't believe it will be an issue. I think everybody will look back and say "That was a smart thing to do.'"

Riano considers the terminal's new technology an enhancement to the passenger experience and good business sense. McCarran's deployment of common-use technology, for example, allows the airport to use its facilities in multiple ways for any airline. "Whenever they have a need, they can assign that airline and that flight to any check-in counter and any gate, which is a tremendous improvement on gating capacity," he explains.

Gate pylons inside the terminal feature six large screens on each side that can be programmed together, in groups or one at a time. Currently, the top four are used as one unit to display flight information, while the bottom two screens are programmed independently with other passenger information.

Electronic wayfinding replaces static directories. Technology from Four Winds Interactive allows visitors to find restrooms, dining facilities and retail shops on touch screens that provide walking path illustrations. Airport staff can use software to inform users about changed or closed facilities. "It's very flexible," Walker notes. "We're very pleased with it, and I think that's really the way to go - get rid of the static signs that are inflexible, hard to change; make everything computer-based, menu-driven touch screens."

Experience Has its Advantages

Given all the growth the airport has experienced over the years, LAS is continually refining its process of "getting things done," says Walker. Specific lessons have been learned about managing contractors, substitution requests, deviation requests and submittals.

Although he doesn't expect LAS to have another project quite this complicated for a long time, changes will be made to the way future projects are handled. In particular, frontline staff will have more input during the planning process. "Sometimes, there's a disconnect between the people building the building and the people using the building," he explains. "Some of the people building the building don't really understand, necessarily, how the building is going to be used from a larger, global picture."

Such a chasm can lead to changes from the original design that impact operations. "I would change the process to make sure that we have the opportunity to have that larger, operational, big picture view before those kinds of decisions are made," Walker reflects.

Signage is always a challenge, he acknowledges: "Until you watch customers come in and actually see how they react, it's just really hard to think of everything." Despite looking at signage "every which way," LAS has an on-call team to display temporary signs if needed.

Employees are encouraged to contact airport administration with any issues or concerns about the new facility - warranty work, broken items, confusing signs, etc. An email address established exclusively for such issues is monitored regularly, which allows staff to facilitate corrective measures when necessary. "It's worked very well," Walker reports. "We're trying to get the entire staff involved to send us any and all information they think should be looked at to improve operation of the building."

Design Elements

Terminal 3 was designed to be open and spacious, with high ceilings and abundant natural light. Wider walkways in the common concourse make the back and forth experience more pleasant for travelers, says Walker. "If you have narrow spaces, you feel like you're a sardine swimming upstream," he notes. Even the moving walkways are wider to accommodate walkers and standers.

In addition to creating a high-functioning, world-class terminal, it was also important for designers to make people feel specifically welcomed to Las Vegas, notes Riano. "That experience coming through the airport should be the prelude to going out into the city," he explains. From the iconic "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign to design elements reminiscent of the canyon walls and mountains surrounding the city, the new terminal is filled with visual cues to provide that "sense of place."

Riano says that the airport was especially successful managing the size and integration of the new facility's international functions. "While it's nice to have an international capability when you've got that traffic at your airport, it's really best to integrate it with the rest - especially if there's some transfer traffic," he explains.

To achieve this, LAS uses "swing gates." Because international flights often have different peaks and banks than domestic flights, swing gates allow holdrooms and gates to be temporarily converted to international capability as needed. They're separated from the rest of the domestic traffic, and resources can be used exclusively for international arrivals. After passengers are processed, the gates are converted back for traditional domestic use.

"The idea of maximizing the capacity of the airport comes through in a major way with the swing gate, because you can use it for international or domestic when the demand is there," Riano explains.

Strategic improvements were also made landside. Airport officials took special care to prevent conflict between pedestrian and vehicular traffic, as experienced outside Terminal 1, notes Walker. A stacked roadway system, with arrivals and departures on different levels, and an internal roadway with pedestrian bridges to the parking garage allow travelers who park or are being picked up by private vehicles to avoid active roadways.

Customer Conveniences & Concessions

Food/beverage and retail facilities in Terminal 3 offer travelers a wide variety of alternatives, Walker notes. With the security checkpoint in the middle, international gates to the east and domestic to the west, travelers can weigh their options. Each side includes a sit-down restaurant, traditional hamburger restaurants and coffee shops. "We purposely made sure each side was similar in concept, but (includes) different types of food to give people more choices," he explains.

Food/beverage options include: Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Vegas ChopHouse, Burger King, Village Pub, Carl's Jr., Pei Wei Asian Diner, Starbucks, Dewar's Clubhouse and La Tapenade Mediterranean Café. Specialty retail includes World of Sports, Vegas Special Tees, Welcome to Las Vegas, XpresSpa, Nuance, Duty Free and Hudson News and Gift.

The new duty-free store and the old are as different as night and day. At 2,500 sq. ft., the Terminal 2 store was congested, with limited space for merchandise - "inadequate" is how Walker recalls it. The new version in Terminal 3 has 10,000+ square feet of offerings. Revenues, he adds, are up about 25%.

Outlets and "recharge zones" were turned into revenue producers with sponsor branding. "It's a win-win for everybody," Walker explains. "We get a little revenue, the customer gets a nice place to sit down and plug in outside the hubbub of the gate area."


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