The RDU Experience

Phase 2 expansion culminates a decade of defining the needs, the costs

RDU AIRPORT, NC — In October 2008 the Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) opened Phase 1 of its terminal overhaul, bringing with it a state of the art centrally driven kiosk-dominated common use lobby and in-line baggage screening system. It is a very welcoming, naturally lighted facility. Phase 2 is now well underway and slated to open in early 2011. Along the way, the airport has maintained its pragmatic approach with dealing with the air carriers, as well as how it manages its finances. It has also learned some lessons along the way which may be of value to others embarking on major construction projects.

The Phase 2 project, which will bring all airlines under an expanded Terminal 1/2 complex, was originally projected to open February 27, 2011. It’s been moved up a month.
Explains RDU airport director John Brantley, “The commissioner of the National Hockey League came to town early last week and said, ‘Guess what, guys? We’re going to hold the NHL All-Star Game in Raleigh on January 30, 2011. And one of the reasons that we’ve agreed to do that is that new terminal at RDU.’

“And we said, we don’t want that thing to be unfinished when they have that All-Star Game. We know we’re going to see lots of people from lots of places.”

Brantley says he doesn’t see any particular obstacles to opening Phase 2 early, though it could cost more money. Speaking with him, one gets the sense that this is a man who doesn’t get rattled easily, and is methodical. “We’ve been down that road before,” he says.

The director has been at Raleigh-Durham since 1977, when the civil engineer was sent by the city to oversee a runway development project.

Relates Brantley, “They had twice tried and twice failed. The FAA encouraged them to start over and not make the decision at the start of the process, but make the decision at the end of the process. I was asked to come and manage that. I figured a couple of years and we’ll get this done and I’ll be on my way.

“We were successful in getting everybody behind a plan. We put out all the alternatives and didn’t make a decision until everybody had spoken. It turned out that there really was a consensus that just had never been allowed to develop previously.

“That runway that we wound up building from ’82 to ’86 became the catalyst for really everything that’s come after it. The airport was pretty much in the late ‘70s largely the airport that was built here in World War II. As a consequence, it was pretty out-moded and needed a lot of improvement. When you break the logjam and get pointed in the direction of ‘let’s make things better’, they tend to decide that this feels and looks pretty good — let’s keep going.”

That step-by-step approach, along with a philosophy of up-front financing, has become a trademark of how the airport operates, according to Brantley.

Straddled with a hub
A central component of Raleigh-Durham International’s terminal expansion plan centered around a hub terminal which had been built for American Airlines in 1985-87. The carrier operated a hub at RDU through 1995. The carrier dehubbed, while at the same time traffic at the airport continued to grow up until the system-wide capacity crunch of 2000, when a major initiative was undertaken to transform the terminal complex.

“That terminal was designed and built as a hub terminal,” relates Brantley, “thus, while it had plenty of gates and a relatively nice concourse, the main processor with ticketing and bag claim was very, very small. American’s plan was that 80 percent of the people would be connecting.

“It turned out they were wrong in that regard; it actually was toward the end of their hubbing operation more like a two-thirds/one-third. So there were already problems with the processing.

“Once the hub went away it became all O&D [origination and destination]; about the only connecting that takes place here is Southwest, and they’ll tell you that they don’t connect passengers. We all know that they do.

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