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High-Tech System Speeds Visitors From Las Vegas Airport to Hotels

Travel: Planes are routed to open gates regardless of airline, reducing congestion and maximizing travelers' casino time.

November 21, 2000|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAS VEGAS — As the peak holiday travel season takes wings, this city is doing all it can to avoid congestion and confusion at the airport.

Officials at McCarran International Airport said Monday that a new computer-driven system to shuffle incoming flights to open gates--which they call the first in the nation--is in place just as Thanksgiving travel begins.

The system, under development for months, is the latest of several initiatives--some in partnership with hotels and casinos--to reduce travelers' time in the airport and to maximize their time in front of slots and green felt.

Among such innovations are arrangements to provide arriving guests with their room keys in the airport's baggage-claim area. Some hotels will even allow departing visitors to check their baggage and receive seat assignments before going to the airport.

The newest development, implemented earlier this month, is an airport-wide computer network that directs incoming flights to an available gate, even if it normally is used by a competing airline. At other airports, gates are leased to airlines and cannot generally be used by other carriers.

Baggage also is redirected by computers to the least busy carousel, and electronic signboards at the airport--as well as the airport's Internet and telephone services--announce the change of gate assignments.

Those assignments are coordinated by the airport, rather than by each airline's staff--which, at other big-city airports, often must scramble to find an open gate.

Helping the system work are computer terminals that can be used by workers for any airline to access its own passenger and flight information. At most airports, ticket gate computers are dedicated to specific airlines.

The arrangement costs money for McCarran: revenue the airport loses by not signing gate leases with airlines, giving them only preference for particular gates instead.

"From an efficiency standpoint, it's worth the loss of revenue," said airport spokeswoman Hilarie Grey.

The flexibility at McCarran--at 33 million annual travelers, the 11th busiest in the nation--is remarkable, said Richard D. Gritta, a business professor at the University of Portland and an airline industry expert.

"It's an intriguing idea because the larger airports are so crowded," he said. "If every airline insisted on maintaining their own fiefdoms, they'd continue to create bottlenecks throughout the air system."

Getting airlines to cooperate with such a system, he said, speaks volumes about the importance they give to passenger service in Las Vegas--ultimately to the benefit of the hotels and casinos, he said.

"It makes sense that we're seeing this in Las Vegas, because the hotels want to maximize the time their guests spend in their casinos," he said.

To further smooth the path for travelers, hotels run by MGM Mirage and Park Place Entertainment have set up check-in desks at the airport, leasing space near the baggage claim area.

Guests at those hotels can drop off their baggage, pick up their room keys, and make dinner and show reservations--and simply head to a casino.

"Watching people get off their flights is like watching a football team emerge from a tunnel before a big game," said Alan Feldman, a spokesman for MGM Mirage. "They burst out, ready to party."

The most unusual feature for travelers in Las Vegas is the ability to check baggage and get seat assignments for a departing flight before even leaving the hotel.

That service was launched by Certified Airline Passenger Service, which a year ago began handling Imperial Palace guests who were flying Reno Airlines.

Since then, the service has contracted with nine other hotels and eight other airlines, said Marty Moore, the company's vice president. The service, which is approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, costs $6 per person.

It may seem strange for a hotel guest to take care of his ticket and baggage needs at the hotel lobby, "but just a few years ago, ticket-less travel seemed strange too," he said.

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* EXPECTING CROWDS, DELAYS

Record numbers of travelers brace for potentially disruptive airline labor disputes. C1

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