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October 25, 2014

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New instruments could ease McCarran delays

Weather-related delays and flight cancellations at McCarran International Airport like the problems this week could be eased in the future with new equipment that will allow more flights to land in poor visibility.

Scores of passengers at McCarran were left frustrated by the delays last weekend and early this week.

Weather across the West hampered airports, contributing to the delays, and McCarran had to cut the number of flights using the airport due to Federal Aviation Administration restrictions. Also, only two of its four runways are equipped with an Instrument Landing System, equipment that is used to guide planes in when visibility is poor.

And one of those runways, the airport's longest, is used primarily for takeoffs, McCarran spokesman Carl Scarbrough said.

Under normal conditions, when the weather and visibility are good, the airport averages about 70 takeoffs an hour, but from Saturday through Monday the airport saw no more than 44 takeoffs in any one hour, McCarran spokeswoman Debbie Millett said.

The ILS is on McCarran's main runways, which run east-west. Another system is being installed on a third runway, which runs north-south. That will give the airport another option for landing planes in poor weather.

Donn Walker, spokesman for the FAA, said having an additional ILS system at McCarran will likely mean more planes will be able to land on the rare days that Las Vegas has bad weather.

"If the wind is in our favor we absolutely could use the additional (ILS) runway," Walker said. "Under certain circumstances when the weather is bad it's going to help."

McCarran officials said that might not have helped this weekend because of wind conditions.

Officials said it could also help when incoming flights are backed up, giving pilots another runway to use.

The $1 million system is being paid for by the FAA. It should be installed in the next few weeks. The airport has not had the option because it has not been a priority to the FAA.

"If you're in San Francisco they have ILS on every runway because there's bad weather there often," Scarbrough said. "But in Las Vegas we have only one, two, or three days a year when we use ILS so we just can't justify it."

Millett said this weekend there were problems at other airports as well, which contributed to the delays across the West.

"There was heavy rain in Phoenix, there was heavy rain in Southern California, so there were delays getting flights out of major hub airports," Millett said. "The delays weren't just because we don't have it (Instrument Landing Systems) on all our runways."

With typically more than 300 sunny days a year in Las Vegas, weather rarely plays a part in flight delays, Millett said. Having a third ILS runway will provide backup when the occasional storm or cloudy sky occurs, Millett said.

About 850 flights take off and land each day at McCarran, Millett said.

But that number was lower because the recent rainstorms have turned McCarran into an ILS-only airport frequently in the last seven days, including part or much of Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Thursday.

Sunday was the worst for travelers, as the airport was under instrument flight rules all day, leading to delays as long as six hours and dozens of cancelled flights.

America West, the second busiest commercial airline at McCarran, cancelled 12 flights Saturday, 43 Sunday, and 15 on Monday, company officials said.

David Seymour, vice president of operations and planning for America West, said McCarran was essentially back to normal on Tuesday. But rain Thursday morning caused the airline to cancel six flights that day, he said.

America West typically has about 200 takeoffs and landings from McCarran daily, Seymour said. He added that often one cancellation will often cause another.

"If you can't get the plane in you can't get the plane out," Seymour said.

The decision to cancel a flight is made considering how easily the airline can get those passengers on other flights, and the impact of the flight on following flights, Seymour said.

For example, when an airline cancels a flight the company still has the time slot set aside for that plane to land, he said. this means that other flights can move into that newly vacated one.

"If I cancel this flight I can take 30 to 40 minutes off delays of other flights," Seymour said.

Southwest Airlines spokeswoman Whitney Eichinger said the company canceled 19 of its roughly 370 flights in or out of McCarran on Sunday.

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