To Reno airport, Burning Man is Super Bowl + Mardi Gras
Dozens of burners with dusty luggage file out on the curb of the Reno-Tahoe International Airport as one of the day's nearly 20 Burner Express buses arrive from the Black Rock Desert.
Forget Super Bowl Sunday.
For the Reno airport, passenger traffic from Burning Man is akin to the Super Bowl and the quirky Mardi Gras festival combined.
With an estimated 17,000 "burners" flying to Reno for the festivities at Black Rock Desert, Burning Man is the airport's largest driver of traffic from a single event, said Heidi Jared, Reno-Tahoe International Airport spokeswoman.
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Add holiday travel and the Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off to the mix and you've got the airport's most interesting stretch for people watching during the year, according Jared.
"There really are no two days like the two days of Labor Day at the airport," Jared said. "You see this interesting mix of playa-goers who are tired, dusty and ready to go home and they're mixed in with holiday travelers and business commuters."
Matthew Cremer, who had travel issues with his airline on the way to Reno, got off the Burner Express bus more than five hours before his flight out of the Biggest Little City just in case. So far, flying out of Reno is looking a lot smoother for the 35-year-old resident of Tulsa, Okla.
"Atlanta's crazy, Chicago's crazy, but Reno's airport is pretty low key," Cremer said. "It actually reminds me of Tulsa."
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Although the event still gets a large share of free-spirited individuals, the attendee mix for Burning Man has diversified if airport traffic is any indication. One of the biggest changes is the increase in the number of private jets that fly in and out from for the event, Jared said.
Burning Man also puts the "international" in Reno-Tahoe International Airport thanks to a diverse mix of passengers from more than 30 countries. These include folks from Iceland, Morocco, and Australia to name a few.
Burners start arriving at Reno-Tahoe International Airport after the Burning Man festival ends. We interview several burners and take a look at services ranging from plastic bags for dust-covered luggage to a bike drop-off station. (Sept. 2014) Jason Hidalgo
Andrew McKenzie of New Zealand stopped by the Kiwanis Club's temporary curbside area with a friend to donate items they used during their stay at Black Rock. The club also started a partnership with the airport this year to operate a bike drop off area for burners. The bikes will either be returned to Burning Man organizers for use again next year or donated to children in the area. The 37-year-old McKenzie thought the donations were a perfect fit for Burning Man.
"We got a bit over prepared for the trip," McKenzie said. "There's a lot of stuff that gets bought and perhaps get wasted … so it's really good to be able to see some other use for them because that's what Burning Man is all about."
With the increased crowds and additional services for burners, handling the post-Burning Man traffic requires extra preparation for the airport. Issue No. 1 is dealing with the dust from the playa, which can present its own unique set of challenges.
Although airport staff are used to dealing with oversized items such as golf bags and snowboards, an influx of dusty baggage is not exactly an everyday occurrence. With the airport investing about $63 million in a new security screening and baggage belt system in recent years, you can bet it's taking extra measures to make sure its investment stays in good working order.
"Airline staff actually put every single piece of luggage (from Burning Man) in a plastic bag or tub," Jared said. "The fine playa dust is unlike regular dirt and it will clog up the conveyer belt if we don't keep it clean."
As with any high-traffic day, the airport also staffs up to help keep things running smoothly. This includes its number of custodians on hand to deal with the extra trash. Because Burning Man espouses a "leave no trace" policy, many burners who go straight to the airport end up taking their trash with them. To address that, the airport sets up large bins at its curb for unwanted items.
Despite the extra effort and preparation that comes with Burning Man, it's an event that the airport welcomes.
"As the event has grown in size, we've stepped up our level of support year after year because we appreciate the positive economic impact that event brings not just to the airport but the region as a whole," Jared said. "We've really come to embrace the Burning Man festival."
The most passionate reaction to Burning Man, however, still comes from the burners themselves. Not even the stress of catching a flight set to leave in 15 minutes was enough to erase the post-Burning Man glee felt by Brielle Gearson as she hurried to check in her bags curbside.
"The whole experience was just eye opening," the Los Angeles resident said. "The sense of community was just amazing and I can't wait to experience it again another time."
For others, the impact of Burning Man was even more emotional. Orysia Kolody was literally brought to tears as she recounted the best parts of what she considers a "life-changing" experience.
"It restores your faith in humanity," the 30-year-old Chicago resident said. "(The people there) they just want to enjoy life and they want to make others enjoy and make the most of it. It was incredible."