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Don't Gamble on Safety When Visiting Las Vegas

Security: The city is safer in some ways, less safe in other ways than Los Angeles. It pays to take the usual precautions.

September 06, 1998|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Tourists love Las Vegas. Sometimes too much.

If you were at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas on the night of Sunday, Aug. 16, you may have glimpsed one sign of that. At about 7:35 p.m., Southwest Airlines flight 407 to Amarillo, Texas, with all its passengers boarded and hatch closed, suddenly stopped in the middle of preflight preparations and reversed course on the tarmac. Once the plane was towed back to the gate, authorities opened the hatch and ejected a foursome of passengers.

Southwest spokeswoman Linda Rutherford labeled them "very rowdy," and at least one witness said they appeared drunk. They disrupted the flight attendants' efforts to make safety announcements, Rutherford said, so Southwest threw them off and gave them refunds.

Such instances are so rare, Rutherford said, that the airline doesn't even keep statistics on them. But Las Vegas, with all its legal vices and large amounts of money flying around, is like no other American city. It got 30.4 million visitors last year, some 7.8 million of them from Southern California. Over the course of the year, police at the Las Vegas airport logged 57 calls for disorderly conduct. At the larger and busier LAX, by comparison, police reported 56 disorderly conduct cases.

As builders near completion of the upscale Bellagio hotel and casino on the Strip and another round of epic hotel-casino openings draws near, it's worthwhile for get-away-from-it-all travelers to keep in mind that Las Vegas, despite the pyramids, volcanoes and pseudo-Italian landscapes, harbors all the usual travelers' perils.

One way to avoid peril, of course, is to be sober at the airport. Federal law forbids flight crews from boarding passengers who appear to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Another is to be wary of other risks at the airport--and it turns out that, disorderliness notwithstanding, the odds of finding trouble at the Los Angeles airport are higher than at the Las Vegas airport.

In 1997, LAX saw 60.1 million incoming and outgoing travelers, and police reported a total of 3,181 crimes in the year, including 23 robberies, 131 assaults, 50 burglaries of businesses, 358 burglaries of vehicles, 2,097 property thefts and 84 auto thefts.

Through the first six months of this year, LAX officials recently reported, overall crime was down 19%, including just six robberies (compared with 15 in the first half of last year) and 52 assaults, down from 64 in the first half of 1997.

At the Las Vegas airport, which got almost exactly half as many travelers as LAX--30.3 million--and substantially fewer international visitors, the figures were far smaller. McCarran public information officer Adam Mayberry said that in 1997, airport police logged eight vehicle thefts and 186 cases of other larceny in various forms (a grouping that includes theft, burglary and a handful of other offenses).

In any airport, many troubles can be avoided by regarding strangers warily, double-checking your privacy when using credit-card or calling-card numbers, keeping your bags in front of you (when possible, pushing luggage carts rather than pulling), and staying out of dark, empty areas.

After the airport often comes the taxi ride. Some excellent advice about that comes to us from the cabdrivers of "Las Vegas Hack Attack" (who maintain an Internet site under that name at http://lasvegastaxi.com). Among the suggestions: Don't believe your driver when he suggests the tunnel (which connects the airport to Interstate 15) as a route to your hotel on the Strip. Except perhaps for the drive to the Luxor, these drivers argue, the tunnel route to a Strip hotel is likely to add $3 to $5 to the fare.

The drivers also warn of "shims" (toothpick-like bits of plastic) that some drivers stick into their meters to play tricks with fare totals; of cabbies eager to collect commissions from certain nightclubs for steering customers their way; and of "zone charges" (the Nevada Taxicab Authority authorizes no such thing). Traffic and costs do vary, the drivers note, but they say a typical fare from McCarran to the MGM Grand Hotel should run $7 to $9 (often less going the opposite way, because of traffic patterns); to the Mirage or Treasure Island, $9 to $11; to downtown, $16 to $20.

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