Retired airport director talks about McCarran, then and now
Randall Walker had just graduated high school when he got his first job at the airport.
“It was in the summer of 1971, and I was with a crew of five guys on the airfield,” he said. “We were taught how to operate skiploaders and dump trucks by an airport crew.”
Little did Walker know, less than two decades later he would become deputy director of the Clark County Aviation Department and, seven years after that, director of McCarran International Airport, the nation’s seventh-busiest airport.
Walker retired May 31 from McCarran. He now is pursuing a career in aviation consulting.
What was your most significant contribution to McCarran?
No question, common-use technology, (which enables the airport to use a single device to control dynamic displays, allowing for flexibility in scheduling and efficient use of technology.)
I’ll match the D gates and Terminal 3 to any facility in the United States, and a lot of places in the world, in terms of efficiency and attractiveness. What has made us operate that efficiently is common use.
Although it was a concept that was being used outside the United States – the first time I saw it was in Singapore in the early ’90s – McCarran was all basically manually managed. When I got here in the early ’90s, we were in the Dark Ages in technology. We had maybe four or five PCs in the whole airport, and they were being used by engineers. Our clerical people had dedicated word processors. Nothing was connected.
When we launched the concept and started the automated part of what we do, we were pioneering it. It was a first in the United States.
What was your biggest disappointment?
I can walk through a facility and see things that we should have done differently, things that were not as efficient or were more expensive than they should have been. That comes with experience.
I’ll give you an example: The D gates are spectacular. The rotunda, the area where you get off the train before you get off the escalator, is 90 feet high. But it could have been 60 feet and be just as spectacular.
It would have saved us some money, not only in building it, but in heating and cooling it every year. Those are the kinds of things where you say, “You know, I should have caught that one.”
What’s the biggest thing lacking at McCarran?
Terminal 1 is a challenging place to manage foot volume traffic. It is difficult managing that curb and roadway system and moving people in and out of the airport to their cars, buses and cabs.
That terminal’s master plan was put together back in the late ’70s. They were very bold, but I wish they had been a little bolder.
We don’t have a stacked roadway system, for instance, which creates a lot of congestion.
If you go out to Terminal 3 and watch the traffic movement, there’s very little congestion with people getting to and from their cars. It works great – almost so well that it doesn’t seem like we need all the infrastructure we built.
What about a cell phone lot?
Cell phone lots were created by airports that had a shortage of parking.
Short-term parking can be a challenge at a lot of airports, so they created cell phone lots for people to wait until Aunt Martha shows up, calls and says, “I’m here, come get me.” It worked pretty well and became kind of a sexy thing to do.
But when I go to airport manager meetings, a lot of them are sorry they were created.
We’re a business. We have to generate money to pay for ourselves. Why would you give stuff away for free?
I can see how I would want it as a customer. It would be great – give me free parking, someplace I can hang out until Aunt Martha calls.
But to us, a cell phone lot is not free. We’d have to find a piece of land, we’d have to pave it, we’d have to fence it, we’d have to light it and clean it. It’s not as expensive as a parking garage, but it’s still expensive. And then to give it away for free when we have plenty of parking just doesn’t make any sense.
What’s on the drawing board for the old Terminal 2 building and A gates?
Terminal 2 needs to be demolished, and that’s the plan.
The planning staff has been challenged to take the old Terminal 2 spot and the current economy parking lot and use that as the last piece of land we’d have to build more gates. You could put a small satellite terminal there and connect it with a train.
Terminal 2 was built with a very specific purpose: charter and international flights, with an emphasis on charter. We had very little international traffic when that opened in 1991. At one point in time, 11 percent of McCarran’s traffic was charters, and Terminal 2 worked very well.
Then, the business went away and charters are down to less than half of a percent. International started to grow, and that terminal became really challenged. So it needs to be torn down.
What is the airport’s biggest international need?
Asia, absolutely. We had Singapore Airlines, but they pulled out after SARS (which broke out in China in 2002 and 2003). We had JAL (Japan Airlines) for awhile, and Philippines recently pulled out. Korean Airlines is the only one that seems to have any staying power, and they’ve gone to four flights a week now.
There are lots of visitors from Asia, and it’s a huge emerging market, especially as the Chinese visa issues continue to be resolved. So there’s going to be a great demand and need for better service.
A year or so ago, I probably would have said Latin America, but the Copa Airlines flight out of Panama City is a very well-used route. They bring people from all over Latin America with their network.
During the boom, there was discussion about building an airport south of Las Vegas. Is there a need for that?
Certainly not now. I know back in 2004 through 2007, I couldn’t go anywhere in the business community where I wasn’t asked when that new airport was going to be up and running. People were worried that we were going to run out of capacity.
When the recession hit, our traffic fell 17 percent. We did 47.8 million passengers in 2007 and 41.5 million last year. So we can accommodate another 6 million passengers before we get to where we were, plus we’ve got more capacity than we had then because of Terminal 3.
Now, I don’t get that question from anybody in the business community.
We measure airport capacity by hotel rooms. The historical relationship was always 320 passengers for every hotel room on an annual basis. Based on what we know now, we can accommodate all the existing hotel rooms we have, plus an additional 16,000.
The airport is always mentioned in taxicab long-haul discussions. How would you solve the problem?
I’m not sure you can totally solve it because as long as there’s a way for some people to take advantage of other people, a few are going to do that.
A little perspective: We built the tunnel on purpose as an alternate route into the airport. If we had not built it and everybody had to go down to Tropicana and Swenson and Paradise, we’d be in total gridlock every day. We told the Taxicab Authority at the time that there shouldn’t be a prohibition on using the tunnel and it should be an option.
The real challenge is to make sure customers receive the option of using the tunnel, rather than being just taken there. Some people want to go that way because it’s faster, and it’s not always the more expensive route.
The only way to get people to behave properly is to create the risk of negative consequences for not following the rules. The way they do it now – setting up an enforcement trap with Taxicab Authority police at the tunnel – is not very effective. It’s terrible customer service to stop people and try to have enforcement when it delays the people in the cab. And with the network that cab drivers have, I’m sure everybody alerts everybody else.
I would do it on the back end at the hotels. It’s pretty easy to figure out who’s coming from the airport because they have all their bags. If a guy’s pulling out three bags from the trunk, there’s a pretty high probability that he came from the airport. They could have a simple survey that isn’t imposing to the customer. How did you get to your hotel? Did you use the tunnel?
If they say they used the tunnel, you ask, “Did the driver give you a choice?” As soon as you find out that the driver didn’t, boom, you’ve got a probable long-haul. Fine them, and if the companies impose a rule that if you get caught so many times you’re terminated, I think it would stop.
Tell me about your successor, Rosemary Vassiliadis.
She has been deputy director for 15 years, so she knows the airport very well. I think things will run just fine.
She will have different focuses and different ways of doing things. Most of the building projects are done, so most of the focus now will be on driving efficiencies in operations.
Some people have criticized airport officials for promoting Vassiliadis rather than conducting a national search for a new director. How do you respond?
There’s nothing wrong with a national search, but I know the industry. The county doesn’t pay enough to get the best talent. If you want somebody who is successful and happy in their current job to leave and come here, you have to pay a heck of a lot more than we’re paying. (Walker made $233,667 last year; Vassiliadis will make $199,205.) Whether people think that is overpaid, that’s the marketplace, and you’ve got to pay what it demands.
We have somebody who has been here for 15 years. This airport has been rated high for the last 30 years. We’re not necessarily the best, but we’re high in the rankings.
My predecessor wasn’t selected in a national search. I wasn’t selected in a national search. But I think the airport has been run pretty well. The experience has been that it’s not necessary.
Now, Rosemary is recruiting for two deputy directors, one in a national search and the other to be selected internally.