08/20/2012 07:08 am ET Updated Oct 20, 2012

Las Vegas Takes Off With Airport Modernization

Summer travelers dread few things more than a terrible airport experience. There is only so much preparation one can make to deal with overcrowded, outdated terminal buildings and the possibility of being stuck on a plane in tarmac gridlock. The worst experiences can ruin an entire vacation. Fortunately, major U.S. airports are investing billions of dollars to modernize their infrastructure. Here in Las Vegas, the $2.4 billion terminal project at McCarran International can serve as a national model for what airport modernization means for the traveling public and our entire economy.

Gridlocked skies and airports not only frustrate travelers, they impose significant costs on our economy. One in five flights departing from our busiest airports are delayed due to tarmac congestion resulting in a $9 billion productivity hit every year, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The U.S. Travel Association estimated that Americans avoided making 41 million trips because of travel hassles. Those avoided trips translate into $22 billion in missed revenue for airlines, hotels and restaurants as well as state and local governments. These lost opportunities impact entire communities and thousands of jobs.

McCarran International Airport's new Terminal 3 is a state-of-the-art example of how to provide a great experience while positioning Las Vegas as one of the world's leading travel destinations. Just opened on June 27, Terminal 3 adds 14 new gates, including seven for international carriers -- putting Las Vegas in a leadership role in the national effort to accommodate more international travelers. State-of-the-art technology and a design intended to accommodate security features brought about after the September 11, 2001 tragedy, McCarran's new terminal shows that security and efficiency can work together.

Successful projects require a community-wide approach with active public and private engagement. Nevada's leaders understood the importance of Terminal 3 to our tourism economy. McCarran airport leaders worked closely with hotels and resorts, convention centers, elected officials and community stakeholders from the drawing board to the ribbon cutting. All of us understood that the Las Vegas experience begins the moment the plane touches down and only ends when the wheels are up for the flight home.

McCarran's success should be replicated at airports across the nation. In fact, many are currently undergoing similar projects. However, elected officials and community stakeholders should focus on four key priorities to ensure that projects are cost-effective and meet long-term economic development goals.

First, the most successful projects ensure that airport, transportation and community stakeholders are actively involved from the outset. Improving the travel experience nationwide requires more connectivity between different modes of transportation. With only one opportunity to "get it right," that collective planning and collaboration is critical.

Second, lawmakers at all levels of government should actively review all barriers that add unnecessary costs and delays to airport projects. These include outdated or conflicting regulations that can bureaucratically ground an entire modernization project for years. Understanding the roadblocks ahead, and removing as many as possible ahead of time, will save money and speed up time to completion.

Third, there must be a renewed focus on creating innovative funding streams. Currently, airport improvements are funded primarily through local bonds, user fees or by accessing the federal government's Airport Improvement Program. These three buckets are not sufficient to fund the massive backlog of projects nationwide. It is time to explore more public-private partnerships and leverage private sector capital as part of these long-term investments.

Finally, Congress must also look at our air traffic control system to help improve efficiency and prevent near misses like we've recently seen reported in the news. Our nation still uses World War II radar technology that simply cannot handle the amount of traffic in today's skies. The transition to NextGen, a GPS-based system, is already underway. However, the Federal Aviation Administration needs Congress to approve all of the funding necessary to complete the transition. Once NextGen is complete, travelers will experience an evolutionary leap in safety and efficiency especially at high-volume commercial hubs.

Lawmakers everywhere should embrace nationwide air travel improvements as a vital component to strengthening our economy and keeping the U.S. competitive in the global tourism marketplace. For a good example of what that future can look like, we welcome their arrival in Terminal 3.

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