June 11, 2010

Ivanpah Airport in a holding pattern


Development of the proposed Ivanpah Airport, considered crucial to Southern Nevada's future just a few years ago, has been suspended indefinitely because of lower passenger numbers and planned improvements at McCarran International Airport.

The Ivanpah plan has been going through an environmental review, and studies already under way will be completed, said Rosemary Vassiliadis, deputy director of aviation for the Clark County Aviation Department.

There also will be continued monitoring of the site, on Interstate 15 north of Primm, in case other plans or developments would have an effect on the proposed airport, she said.

But with passenger counts at McCarran declining, it was decided that a new airport wasn't an immediate need after all.

"We don't lose anything" by stopping the planning process now, Vassiliadis said. "We can restart it at any time."

Halting the process now is expected to save $15 million, spokeswoman Elaine Sanchez said.

In April, almost 3.4 million passengers passed through McCarran, which is 5 percent lower than the more than 3.5 million who used the airport in April 2009. In 2010, passenger counts are 3.9 percent lower than in 2009, and 2009's numbers were 8.2 percent less than 2008's counts.

"The drop in traffic, the economy, are certainly two elements that affect the need for a new commercial airport," Vassiliadis said.

Another element is known as NextGen, or Next Generation Air Transportation System. It involves replacing ground-based air traffic control systems with one using satellites, which will allow planes to fly closer together on more direct routes, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

McCarran's current capacity is 53 million passengers a year. Because of the air traffic improvements, that should increase to 55 million within 18 months, Vassiliadis said.

If the program is fully funded, McCarran could handle 60 million people a year, she said.

McCarran was the nation's seventh-busiest airport in 2009 with 40.5 million passengers.

No timeline has been established for restarting planning for Ivanpah, which was once expected to open as soon as 2017.

"We know we're beyond 2025, so it wouldn't be meaningful to come up with a date," Vassiliadis said.

That's a far different tune than the one being sung as recently as 2008. When Las Vegas was still growing and adding more hotel rooms, plans called for the $7 billion Ivanpah airport to handle as many as 35 million passengers a year, as well as air cargo.

The project had its critics, though, who were concerned about putting an airport so close to the Mojave National Preserve just over the California state line.

And the area is home to several protected species, including desert tortoises that are relocated when development threatens their habitat elsewhere.