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On Location at McCarran International Airport: First Impressions



Randy Walker

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Still, this is the kind of misinformation that baffles travelers all the time. But few take the time to consider why they fall victim to false or misleading information. The answer lies in IT. Most airport information systems are run by the airlines, which use decades-old legacy systems on the back end. These systems don't play well with others, giving the airports virtually no choice but to cede all informational control to the airlines. This is why, in most domestic airports, flight boards contain only one airline's flight information. Each operator must operate a separate set of screens. It's also why most U.S. airports devote entire terminals to one airline; the proprietary airline systems are hardwired, and no other airline can use them.

McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas is an exception. Contributing Editor Jonathan Feldman and I spent two days there interviewing the airport's corporate and IT leadership. McCarran has convinced virtually all 26 of its airline "tenants" (Southwest is the holdout) to use Windows systems run by the airport. These systems tie into each airline back end via terminal emulation. As a result, gates, baggage carousels and ticket counters can be used by any airline (except Southwest)--and McCarran can control the information that goes out over the flight information displays. If the airport closes because of weather or some other calamity, the airlines' on-time records take a back seat to consumer interests.

(Actually, most of the time, the FIDs show the airline's on-time data. Only when that data conflicts with the Federal Aviation Authority's data by more than 12 minutes does McCarran replace the airline's data with the FAA's, reflecting the new, expected arrival time.)



Assistant Director for Finance, Ross Johnson

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McCarran models its IT approach after foreign airports, which pioneered common-use terminals. And McCarran has an advantage over a lot of other U.S. airports because it's a so-called origin and destination airport; people don't generally fly through Vegas to get to other destinations, they fly to it. This means no one airline dominates by operating a hub; those that do, such as United Airlines in Denver, can dictate the IT approach, says McCarran Director Randall Walker. Essentially the CEO of the airport, Walker's position is an appointed one. He and all airport employees work for Clark County.

McCarran takes on the expense of administering and maintaining nearly all airport systems on behalf of the airlines. (Southwest and America West still have some IT staff on the premises.) So upgrades are McCarran's problem. In return, McCarran officials believe they save 757s full of money because the airport uses preferential leasing instead of dedicated leasing of gates. If a gate isn't being used, McCarran can assign it to another airline on the fly. This makes more efficient use of the gates as well as helps the airport avoid building more gates to accommodate more passengers.