In separate interviews, Van Beek and Boyd said Las Vegas enjoys a unique position relative to airport expansions elsewhere, including a $1.8 billion renovation and expansion project starting at Salt Lake City International Airport.
"Las Vegas is not Omaha or New York City," Boyd said. "People go to Las Vegas for the Strip and conventions and downtown. That's different from passengers passing through Atlanta going somewhere else."
Atlanta, the world's busiest airport by passenger volume, handles more than 89 million passengers a year. But Van Beek said maybe one in three passengers stays in Atlanta, while almost all of McCarran's passengers begin or end their trip in Las Vegas.
Walker said conventioneers and tourists account for 80 percent of McCarran passenger traffic, and local residents make up another 12 percent. Just 8 percent of McCarran passengers currently use the Las Vegas airport as a connecting hub for another flight.
Van Beek noted the Las Vegas airport isn't tied to the fortunes of one large air carrier, but serves as a destination for carriers including Southwest Airlines.
"Airports like San Diego and Las Vegas, where Southwest is their leading carrier, have an advantage because their leading carrier is growing," he said.
Hansman, the MIT professor, said air travel is expected to grow nationally in years to come and that Las Vegas will need the expanded airport to compete.
"Airports are the waterfront property of aviation. You're not getting new ones, so you have to take advantage of what you've got and make it as efficient as possible," he said.
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