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McCarran flier count increases in March

Passenger counts at McCarran International Airport rose in March as upstart airlines continued a recent trend by filling in gaps left by some shrinking longtime market leaders.

During the month, the 3.65 million people that passed through the airport marked a 2.5 percent gain from the same month a year earlier, in line with the growth rate of recent months. This came as most of the domestic airlines carried fewer passengers although international traffic continued to increase.

Among the "legacy carriers," only American boosted its count, with its future in bankruptcy still a large question mark. The commonly owned Southwest and AirTran, plus Delta, United and US Airways saw their counts decline.

At the same time, Spirit, Allegiant, JetBlue and Virgin America reported growth rates ranging from 18.5 percent to 264 percent.

Las Vegas-based Allegiant, up 29.8 percent in March, has emerged at the fourth-largest airline at McCarran mainly on nonstops to small cities like McAllen, Texas, and less-than-daily service. However, that number will likely moderate in the next couple of months.

The airline shows that the number of seats in and out of Las Vegas in April rose 36 percent, but that growth rate will drop to 3 percent in June and –4 percent in July before picking up again to 12 percent in September.

Speaking with industry analysts on Wednesday, Allegiant President Andrew Levy said management had overshot the mark in expanding its schedule.

"Quite honestly, we hurt ourselves in Vegas by being a little more aggressive with additional capacity and we’ve reversed that," he said.

For example, nonstops launched in November to Knoxville, Tenn., Lexington, Ky., and Lafayette, La., have all been eliminated. Elsewhere, Allegiant added seats "on marginal flying days" that did not produce the profits they had wanted.

"As we looked forward, we realized that we’re better off cutting back some of those flights beginning in the May time frame," he said.

However, he added, "There’s nothing wrong with Vegas demand. Vegas demand is very strong."

Several other airlines have described systemwide plans to maintain what they call "capacity discipline," or keeping a tight leash on schedules to drive up fares and profits. Raising prices became imperative again this year to offset the spike in fuel prices.

However, the April survey of airline executives by the International Air Travel Association showed improving confidence levels backed by a recovering U.S. economy.

The international passenger count, a particular marketing focus for McCarran officials, rose 16.1 percent in March.

Canadian discounter WestJet is now on pace to become the first foreign airline to carry more than 1 million people through McCarran in one year.

For the first quarter, the total passenger count of 9.9 million was 3 percent higher than in 2011.

Contact reporter Tim O’Reiley at toreiley@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5290.

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