Where on the Southwest Airlines system do our aircraft take off with the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower, and an Egyptian pyramid and Sphinx in the background? Well, we do fly to New York La Guardia, but not to Paris or Cairo, so the answer is Las Vegas.
That’s right, Flashback Fridays takes a look at Vegas, baby! Since the big Southwest companywide Spirit Party is being held in downtown Las Vegas at the Fremont Street Experience on May 12, I thought this might be a good time to look back at the history of McCarran International Airport.
Las Vegas is one of those places where history is measured in minutes, not years. To discover that, all you need to do is drive down the strip. When I first visited Vegas in 1983, there were still open spaces along the strip, and longtime iconic hotels like the Landmark, the Sands, and the Thunderbird were still thriving. We stayed at the Flamingo Hilton which still had its original garden rooms around the pool and the lush garden. The story of Las Vegas’ airport, McCarran International, is much the same.
Southwest began flying to Las Vegas on January 31, 1982, about the time of my first trip to “Sin City.” But let’s turn the clock back to a time before Southwest “gambled” on Vegas, and take a look at McCarran. The original terminal building was located off of Las Vegas Boulevard, “The Strip.” Clark County bought the airport in 1948, and named it McCarran field after Pat McCarran, the state’s longtime US Senator. McCarran had authored the Civil Aeronautics Act. In 1963, the airport opened a new terminal off of Paradise Road, and the building was inspired by the TWA terminal at Kennedy International in New York. Thanks to Lynn Zook, with her “Classic Las Vegas” history blog and the Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas, I can bring you these stunning photographs of that terminal. In the view below, operations have yet to begin, but the soaring design of the terminal is evident.
Even in 1963, these ticket counters soon would be jammed with passengers, once the terminal opened. I can make out three of the airline names, Pacific, TWA, and Western—all of which are also history. (I think the fourth carrier name is Bonanza Air Lines, so that would make it four for four.) So many terminals of this era have similar mezzanines with offices above the ticket counters.
The bar really looks like it belongs in Vegas, and you half expect the Rat Pack to be sitting over in one of the corners.
And wouldn’t you think that a Las Vegas airport would be well-lit at night?
This terminal was replaced by the current structure beginning in 1985, and it has been expanded ever since. The photo below was taken during Southwest’s tenth anniversary celebration in 1992. The ticket counter reflects Southwest’s “nautical” period, when SWA was spelled out by flags of the International Marine Alphabet.
Even 18 years ago, the Vegas Ramp was a busy place.
Today, Las Vegas is our busiest city in terms of flight departures, and we employ almost 2,700 Employees at McCarran. Incidentally, did you know that, according to Wikipedia, the airport currently has 1,234 slot machines throughout the facility? So, you might say that, for Southwest, Las Vegas is a sure thing.