McCarran: 50 Years of Vegas Flight
By Dave Berns
Primed with loans from the Teamsters union pension fund, the mob-run properties of the 1950s were poised to establish Las Vegas as America’s exciting, risqué getaway. There were the Dunes, Sahara, Desert Inn, Stardust, Riviera, Sands—anyone living in postwar America could recite the names without a travel brochure. Tens of millions of dollars were being spent on a slew of new gambling resorts. But despite all the money, Las Vegas remained isolated in the Mojave Desert; accessibility from other cities in the US and abroad was a major challenge. There were financial hiccups, temporary closures, and concerns that the desert city was overbuilt. But an even more powerful investment was on the horizon, and it would change the future of Las Vegas.
In 1958, major American airlines began flying larger, more luxurious jets—planes that could carry nearly 200 passengers each, an unheard-of figure for commercial air travel at the time. Boeing 707s (and, later, 720Bs) and Douglas DC-8s required longer runways and greater amenities for travelers, who generated significant profits for airports and the local governments that operated them. The new planes flew at speeds near 600 mph and shrank the travel time from coast to coast, increasing the likelihood that tourists and business travelers would be willing to venture farther. The next move was clear to Las Vegas Valley business and political leaders: McCarran Airport, with its handful of gates and short runways, lacked the infrastructure to meet the needs of the jet age. It was time for a makeover.
“They wanted McCarran to look like other world-class airports,” says Daniel Bubb, a UNLV-trained historian and author of the book Landing in Las Vegas: Commercial Aviation and the Making of a Tourist City. “That was the goal from the get-go, that we compete with Paris, Los Angeles’s LAX, Chicago’s O’Hare, and other major airports in terms of quality, size, convenience.”
The result: the March 15, 1963, opening of McCarran’s new terminal. The new McCarran included a 262,000-square-foot clamshell-shaped three-level terminal, with airline ticket counters, baggage carousels, the Flight Deck Restaurant, the Omni Bar, shops, terminal gates, two runways (one 10,200 feet long and the other 8,900), taxiways, automobile parking, and a 239,610-square-yard apron for commercial airline use.
In an earlier era, the grand railroad terminals of New York City, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC, stood as icons of business and power. Now the nation’s new airports, including McCarran, would similarly demonstrate that their cities were serious about investing in their own futures. “This was all a part of Las Vegas and Nevada growing up,” says Michael Green, a history professor at the College of Southern Nevada.
The new 1963 terminal looked nothing like today’s terminals at McCarran and other major airports. Back then the designs were purely functional, a way to comfortably get people in and out with as few snags as possible. By today’s standards, there was virtually no security. Travelers pulled up to the curb or parked in an adjacent lot, ran to a ticket counter, checked their bags, and were off to their destinations in less than an hour—but even that was a dramatic transformation from 15 years earlier. Well into the ’60s, casinos could send pretty girls in barely-there costumes to greet VIPs on the tarmac.
In 1947, US commercial airlines transported 10 million travelers. Just 11 years later, that figure was 55 million. And even larger planes were about to be unveiled, with 747s and DC-10s that would carry as many as 300 people on every flight. “Air travel was expanding [at an alarming rate],” read a Las Vegas Sun editorial, “and the public [increasingly] came to depend on commercial aviation.”
A modest $150,000 program in the early ’50s to pave three runways, provide night lighting, and build a control tower and weather station was simply not enough. McCarran remained too small to meet the commercial demands of the city it served. Annual passenger volume at the airport soared to more than 700,000 in 1957, the vast majority drawn by the flurry of resort construction. That year a study undertaken by the Clark County Commission found that a brand-new terminal made more economic sense than simply expanding the current facilities. It was time for Clark County to make an investment in its future.
Federal grants would pick up a portion of the new airport’s price tag, but the county would have to float a $5 million bond to pay for the remainder. The trick would be getting Clark County voters to approve the bond. Problem was, they’d just approved a $6 million bond for local schools, and a vocal percentage of them believed that McCarran was sufficient to meet the community’s needs without expansion.
What they didn’t yet know: Casinos were ready for the Wild West to start welcoming a more affluent caliber of gambler. Al Cahlan, then editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, wrote: “The present facilities are completely unfit for the class of people we are getting to come to Las Vegas, and the increasing number of airlines serving this community has brought obsolescence so far as accommodations are concerned.” With support from key business and political leaders, in 1960 the bond measure passed.
The 1963 terminal was the culmination of the work of one who wouldn’t live to see it: US Sen. Pat McCarran, the Reno-born son of Irish immigrants, who worked on the family’s Northern Nevada sheep ranch as a young boy and later passed the state bar exam without ever attending law school. McCarran, a Democrat who was probably best known for his avid anticommunism and close alliance with Red-baiting Sen. Joe McCarthy, was an aggressive advocate for airport development throughout the West, particularly in Nevada.
McCarran believed that for the Nevada economy to evolve beyond its dependence on mining, which was subject to cycles of boom and bust, a robust aviation industry would have to play a significant role. In the coming decades McCarran successfully pushed for the development of what was to become Nellis Air Force Base and for funding to expand the Las Vegas airport that would carry his name.
“The irony is, his actions did a lot to build tourism and gaming, and he did a lot to protect them, but he didn’t like gamblers or gambling,” says the College of Southern Nevada’s Green. “He did not like the idea that his state depended on casinos, but he also believed that if the federal government had money to spend, they should spend it here.”
McCarran died in 1954 while serving as a senator, but his Democratic successors—Howard Cannon and Alan Bible—also recognized the importance of aviation in the development of Nevada and pushed for the federal money that helped pay for the McCarran Airport expansion of 1963.
The celebration was short: As soon as that expansion was complete, airport and county officials began preparing for the next one. Boeing and McDonnell Douglas were in the midst of developing their 747 and DC-10 models, respectively, which would require larger terminals and longer runways throughout the world. Casino developers Jay Sarno and Kirk Kerkorian were ushering in the age of the Las Vegas megaresort with the development of Caesars Palace and the International Hotel (later known as the Las Vegas Hilton and now the Las Vegas Hotel and Casino). And the Las Vegas Valley’s population would continue to nearly double every decade, pushing the need for a larger airport to better handle travel for tourists and locals.
Last year, Terminal 3 opened at a cost of $2.4 billion, making it the largest public works project in the state’s history. The 2,300-foot-long structure, stark and cold compared to the colorful main terminal, handles all international flights at McCarran and some domestic, with its own baggage claim, ticketing, and parking structures, making it a key tool in the Strip’s efforts to expand its international customer base.
The story continues.
photography by Walter Bibikow (Strip), Bettmann/Corbis (Presley); Steve Marcus/Las Vegas Sun; Christopher DeVargas/Las Vegas Sun (Terminal 3), Courtesy of Las Vegas Sun (Slots), Denise Truscell o/Wireimage (Kardashians), Ethan Miller/Getty Images (Branson); courtesy of Las Vegas News Bureau (Eise)