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1 The airlines of America are the vital core of the world’s biggest industry—travel and tourism. thomas petzinger jr. The typical evening rush hour at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, Nevada, is quite a sight. Air traffic controllers sequence Delta, Alaska, Southwest, American, Frontier, United, Virgin Atlantic, Northwest, and Allegiant airliners to land on Runways 25L and 19R. More than two dozen other passenger jets wait to take off on Runways 25R and 19L. During the wait, the line of lights in the distance gets longer as more of the world’s finest airliners are sequenced to land at the nation’s seventh-busiest and sixth-largest mega-port. Manned flight has intrigued Americans from the day the Wright brothers successfully flew their experimental powered glider Kitty Hawk in North Carolina , on December 17, 1903, right up to the landing of the six-hundred-passenger Emirates Airbus A3XX jumbo jet at John F. Kennedy International Airport on August 1, 2008. Numerous books, articles, and stories have been written about the phenomenon of man leaving the ground to enter a new frontier in the sky through passenger travel. Few of them, however, have addressed the history of what happened when the sky frontier met the ground frontier in the American East and rapidly moved to the American West. As the airplane came west to Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, and Tucson, these growing cities eagerly reached out to the new transportation phenomenon by building airports with graded runways, small terminal buildings, and hotels, working diligently to become part of the prestigious, government-funded, transcontinental air mail and passenger transportation system. As this system began to grow, smaller connecting towns were needed for fuel stops, one of which was Las Vegas. An interesting and previously unexamined part of this story is the meeting of the airplane Introduction ▶  2 ◀ l a n d i n g i n l a s v e g a s with this small desert frontier town in the 1920s and the resulting symbiotic relationship that, over the remaining eight decades of the twentieth century, transformed the tiny oasis into a leading global tourist destination. Why an unexamined story? The reason is that commercial air travel often is taken for granted, viewed simply as a faster and more convenient form of transportation , and Las Vegas has been dismissed as an aberration, a bastion of vice and gambling. As a new and unseasoned form of transportation and part of the Contract Air Mail Route 4 (CAM-4), commercial air travel came to a sparsely populated Las Vegas in 1926, when the town was little more than a watering hole, an isolated train stop in the desert. During the Great Depression years, when only the wealthy could afford to fly, the airlines struggled, while Las Vegas, with the construction of the Hoover Dam, experienced a tourism boom. During the war years, civilian passenger travel was put on hold so the airlines could provide planes and personnel for the war effort. But the postwar boom and the beginning of the consumer age prompted larger and faster planes to bring more tourists to Las Vegas. McCarran Field expanded its runways and terminal, new casino-resorts appeared downtown, and the city grew. During this time, commercial aviation became a more important source of transportation for tourists, business travelers, and conventioneers wanting to come to the Strip’s most recent and most luxurious casino-resorts. The coming of jets in the 1960s revolutionized commercial air travel for the next four decades, offering affordability, comfort, and speed to domestic and global travelers. By century’s end, the airlines delivered more than 33 million passengers to McCarran International Airport, with the airlines and airport together pumping more than $30 billion into the southern Nevada economy.1 Las Vegas reached its zenith as the fastest-growing city in the nation, which in partnership with the largest airline industry in the world and a cuttingedge modern mega-port, formed a world-class travel destination. I argue here that commercial air passenger transportation, prodded by progressive government aeronautical policies and aviation technology from 1926 to 2009, served as a vital catalyst for Las Vegas’s development of a lucrative tourism industry and for the city’s rapid growth. I examine the complex relationships among airline technology, airline management, tourism , airport management, and the casino-resorts, and I also highlight the relationships among politics, economics, and technology and explores how these forces combined...


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Subject Headings

  • Las Vegas (Nev.) -- History.
  • Las Vegas (Nev.) -- Economic conditions.
  • Tourism -- Nevada -- Las Vegas -- History.
  • Airlines -- Nevada -- Las Vegas -- History.
  • Aeronautics, Commercial -- Nevada -- Las Vegas -- History.
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