It may have seemed like an easy step up the ladder from deputy director of aviation to the hot seat, but when you’re responsible for one of the busiest airports in the US, your predecessor was in the role for 16 years, and you’re taking the helm at an airport that has seen massive amounts of construction over the past few years despite a gloomy economy, that step doesn’t look so small any more.
The good news is that having served as Randall Walker’s deputy at the Clark County Department of Aviation since 1997, nobody was better qualified than Rosemary Vassiliadis to take over when he retired in June.
Modest Vassiliadis states that she has “very big shoes to fill” as Walker was a well-known and popular character in Las Vegas who helped make McCarran a “very successful airport”.
Indeed, McCarran handled a healthy 41.7 million passengers (+0.4%) last year – its second successive annual increase, and the highest annual total since 2008 when 44 million travellers used the Nevada gateway.
Its all-time record was set in 2007 by the way when McCarran operated above its then design capacity when 47.7 million passengers squeezed through its facilities.
Vassiliadis admits that she finds her new role exciting, challenging and daunting. However, one thing she doesn’t have to worry about for a while is new infrastructure, as McCarran is in good shape after a decade of construction designed to address the growing number of passengers.
Key additions to McCarran’s aviation facilities include: Terminal 3, airfield enhancements, new roadways, a central utilities plant and a 6,000-vehicle capacity parking garage, all added as part of a $2.4 billion project completed in June 2012.
“The actual Terminal 3 project took six years and McCarran now has a beautiful facility to process passengers through,” enthuses Vassiliadis.
She is, however, quick to point out that the US economy nosedived just as the project launched, meaning that it was a big decision to continue with construction.
“It was difficult. We were very cautious, but we’d already broken ground and we decided to go ahead,” she tells Airport World. “It turned out to be the best decision we made. T3 opened last year and now we’re cautiously optimistic about the future.”
Vassiliadis says that the latest IT systems were incorporated into the planning and design of the 1.9 million-square foot terminal in a bid to ensure high efficiency levels and reduced waiting times.
They include 100% common-use systems to enable airlines to time-share facilities, and new self-boarding gates to speed up boarding.
Automated aircraft docking systems also allow pilots to align with a passenger loading bridge, requiring minimal ramp staff support.
Signage is provided by more than 1,100 LCD and LED screens, giving passenger information, airline branding and real-time updates.
The new $1.2 billion terminal effectively increases McCarran’s capacity to 53mppa.
Having focused on expansion for the past 16 years, Vassiliadis reveals that the gateway will now concentrate its energies on becoming even more operationally efficient.
Before joining the Department of Aviation, Vassiliadis was director of finance for Clark County, which encompasses the city of Las Vegas. She wouldn’t have known it at the time, but it provided her with valuable experience for running McCarran.
Certain Clark County departments operated as enterprise funds, Vassiliadis explains, and so were supported entirely from user fees, not tax dollars. Likewise, McCarran’s budget is comprised of rates and airline charges.
“Then we try to maximise revenues with food and beverages, specialty shops, parking and rental car fees,” she says.
In addition, Vassiliadis says McCarran is one of only two airports in the US which has gaming in the building — something that can provide a sizeable additional source of revenue, particularly as gaming is precisely the reason most people are heading to Las Vegas.
Today, Vassiliadis says, the airport’s revenue is an equal 50/50 split between aeronautical and non-aviation related revenues.
Good customer service is imperative, notes Vassiliadis, who believes that it is the job of her staff and everyone at McCarran to ensure that all passengers enjoy a smooth and hassle free journey through the airport.
As part of this philosophy, she insists that McCarran always has clean, working restrooms; that retail and F&B concessions are open at the right times and are well stocked; and that merchandise and souvenirs are available.
“If they had a good time but didn’t have time to go shopping in Vegas, they can shop here and that’s what we want,” she smiles.
“So we provide the latest products, displayed in an inviting way. That’s customer service.
“Similarly, if there’s a torn piece of carpet, we replace it. We also work hard with the airlines to ensure ticketing lanes and booths are open with sufficient time for people to check in and get to their gate.
“We are also aware that many of our visitors only fly once a year, so maybe a little more anxious than frequent flyers. The nature of these passengers is they want to get to the hold-room area as soon as possible before they start to relax. Once they see it, they’re fine and they go wandering.”
Vassiliadis says her customer service commitment is partly driven by the fact that McCarran is a major Origin and Destination (O&D) airport. Its status, she believes, means that passengers use every facet of McCarran, unlike at other bigger airports, where they are often just passing through.
“Atlanta, for example, is a much busier airport, but 65% of people are connecting so they don’t use ticketing, they don’t use the roadway system or parking,” Vasiliadis explains. “Here at McCarran, 80% of our customers use everything.”
Vassiliadis is a big fan of “a sense of place” offerings that make individual airports stand out from the crowd and enhance the passenger experience.
McCarran certainly feels like an extension of the Las Vegas experience and she cites Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Texas as an example of another gateway that does this well in terms of its locally flavoured live music and retail/F&B offering.
“Vegas certainly has its share of entertainment and characters that allow us to do things a little differently here,” says Vassiliadis, who notes that when TSA first introduced ‘tip screens’ explaining the new security procedures to passengers, McCarran did it “the Vegas way”.
“We didn’t have a film of a TSA agent explaining the procedure. We had Vegas celebrities and personalities. And we’ll be updating those to reflect who’s currently playing on the strip.”
Travelling can be a stressful experience and it’s touches like these, she says, that help keep passenger anxiety levels down.
“Customer service encompasses every part of our operation,” adds Vassiliadis. “How do we do that? By getting my staff to take ownership. Then the results are going to show.”
Thirty-one airlines currently use McCarran, the most popular being the low-cost domestic carrier Southwest Airlines, followed by Delta, United and then American.
Asked what her philosophy for keeping the airlines happy and attracting more carriers, Vassiliadis believes that a sound financial base is key.
“We don’t want to have spikes in rates and charges from year to year because it’s hard for airlines to adjust to that. So each year we have a budget meeting and we present our airlines with a multi-year plan,” she says.
Domestically, the most popular routes at McCarran are to and from Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Chicago. For international travel the airport sees a lot of traffic between Las Vegas and Canada – particularly Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver; then, it’s Mexico City, and the United Kingdom from both Heathrow and Gatwick.
Currently, Korean Airlines provides McCarran’s only non-stop service from Asia and so the current focus is on getting more routes to the continent – primarily Japan and China, as Asian O&D has grown 32% in the past three years.
McCarran has seen a number of new airlines use the airport from Europe and Latin America. With the onset of the recession, it became more heavily involved in its partnership with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and put a greater focus on new international service.
Today, there is much more competition with other airports for new service, especially international routes, but McCarran has had an incentive programme whereby landing fees are waived on all operations in excess of what the airline provided in the same month of the prior year.
Additionally, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority has a programme, which offers co-op marketing funds to support new services, especially international.
In addition to passenger traffic, McCarran also handles around 200 million pounds of cargo a year, and while that may pale in comparison with some other large airports, Vassiliadis says the legacy carriers have found it to be profitable, and they see some interesting consignments go through.
“Because of the conventions we have, we see exotic animals, electronic stuff for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), classic autos, fresh fish, and flowers that the hotels use,” she says.
Appeal of Las Vegas
In addition to gambling, Las Vegas also has the largest single-level convention centre on the planet — with more than three million square feet of events space, which is the site for this year’s World Route Development Forum.
In February, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority approved the first phase of a $2.5 billion overhaul of the centre, the first major expansion in more than a decade.
Vassiliadis believes that from a destination point of view, no other city can offer the experiences than Vegas can. “You can still get a very reasonable room rate; you can still get value here,” she says.
“The appeal of Las Vegas as a destination is as strong as ever. There are so many different types of shows, not just headliners any more. We have smaller, more intimate venues too. As for shopping, we have boutiques to malls. Plus, there’s the dining , which has been its biggest hit after gaming. All the top chefs come here.
“People still come to Las Vegas with a vacation mentality. They’re going to splurge a little more, treat themselves to that fancy dinner.”
McCarran is located near the famous Las Vegas Strip and therefore has only limited space available for expansion. As such, in the early 2000s, Clark County bought 6,500 acres of land about 30 miles southwest of the current airport and embarked on ambitious plans to develop it as a relief airport called Ivanpah Valley.
This was put on hold in 2010 in the economic downturn, but Vassiliadis says the land is being retained and preserved for future commercialisation.
“You never know,” she says. “With the flexibility T3 gives us at McCarran in terms of kerb space, parking, ticketing and baggage claim, we’re satisfied for now, but if this town ever has huge growth again like it did in the 2000s, the resorts will expand south.”
That’s when they may need Ivanpah. Vassiliadis says it’s prudent to look to the hotels and whether they’re expanding to determine what the airport should do next in terms of expansion.
“We want to be ready,” she says. “And it would be prudent of me to keep that site.”