McCarran International Airport is central to the long history of aviation in Clark County. It is the second airport to bear the name of Nevada's first native-born United States senator, and today it accounts for nearly sixty percent of all visitors to Las Vegas.
Las Vegas and Clark County joined the commercial air travel routes on April 17, 1926, when Western Air Express touched down at Rockwell Field. Western Air Express moved to a new airfield in 1930, when Rockwell Field closed. The new airport attracted the U.S. Army Air Corps and became a flexible gunnery training school during World War II. In 1941, the field was renamed McCarran Airport, honoring Nevada's U.S. senator, Patrick McCarran.
Though the Gunnery School closed in 1945, the Air Force wanted to reopen the local base in 1947, as long as commercial air traffic could be moved to another airport. The county reviewed possible sites throughout the valley and settled on George Crockett's Alamo Field, which was about four miles south of Las Vegas on the Los Angeles Highway—today's Las Vegas Boulevard. Crockett agreed to sell his airport to Clark County, thereby retaining his business at the airport.
On December 19, 1948, the current airport was dedicated as McCarran Field, and had twelve flights daily. Four airlines—Western Air Express, Transcontinental Western Airlines (TWA), Bonanza, and United—served the new airport. The stone pillars marking the entrance to the previous McCarran Airport were moved to the new airport a couple of years later, and rededicated. They still stand off of Las Vegas Boulevard in their 1950 location. In its first full year of operation, over 35,000 passengers used the new airport. The previous airport reopened as the Las Vegas Air Force Base, and was renamed Nellis Air Force Base in 1950.
During the 1950s, promotions by local casino/resorts dramatically increased the number of visitors to Las Vegas. Airplane travel expanded, and the public increasingly depended on commercial aviation. The airport underwent numerous expansions, and by 1959, the number of daily flights had risen to seventy-three, with an annual passenger total of 959,603. New airlines brought in even more travelers. The existing airport facilities had become inadequate to handle the increases, and airport officials planned a new terminal for the east side of the airfield, opposite the original terminal.
The new terminal opened on March 15, 1963, and airport operations moved to the new building. An average of 128 daily flights and 1,444,700 passengers used the airport that year. Welton Becket and Associates designed the new terminal structure, in collaboration with John Replogle. Its central structure was a pre-stressed, concrete dome, which housed nearly two acres of space without internal columns. It symbolized the new "jet-age" terminal. The structure, which is still part of the greatly enlarged terminal facility today, was an engineering and architectural marvel when it opened, though many doubted that the area would ever be able to fill its cavernous spaces. The former terminal building, located off Las Vegas Boulevard, became the headquarters for Alamo Airways, a model general aviation facility that George and Peg Crockett continued to operate. In July 1966, McCarran Airport was officially removed from the tax rolls and became totally self-supporting. In 1967, the Crockett's involvement with McCarran Airport ended when their friend Howard Hughes bought their facility.
In 1968, McCarran officially became McCarran International Airport. The need for growth was constant, and a $30 million expansion, built between 1970 and 1974, added the area known as the cluster buildings, or A and B gates.
With Senator Howard Cannon's Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, the number of airlines servicing McCarran doubled to fourteen in just two years. Such expansion required an ambitious airport growth plan. The plan, called McCarran 2000, projected that 20,000 to 30,000 passengers daily would travel through the airport by the year 2000. To fund this expansion, the county sold $315 million in airport revenue bonds in 1982, which was at that time the largest single sale of airport revenue bonds ever. The first major part of this expansion was completed in 1985.
During the next decade, even with the completion of the first three phases of McCarran 2000, it became obvious that the next phase would be necessary sooner than expected. The thirty million annual passenger mark was surpassed in 1996. Phase IV of McCarran 2000 was redesigned to provide even more gates for passengers. The next phase of the new facility, the D Gates, opened in 1998. This building will eventually house forty-five gates when all phases are complete, adding to the existing fifty-eight gates.
McCarran International Airport now serves over forty million passengers a year. New plans will provide not only for today's needs, but also for future needs. A new airport, to be located south of Las Vegas in the Ivanpah Valley, will accommodate future growth in the region through the next century.
Even with the new Ivanpah facility, McCarran will remain the primary airport for travelers, which has been its role since 1948. George Crockett's dusty airport in the desert is, as of late 2006, the nation's fifth-busiest airport, and the tenth-busiest in the world.