RDU's big chance

There are lots of costly construction projects in the Triangle, but the one to watch is rising out at RDU.

It's the replacement for the late (or soon-to-be late) Terminal C, and last week the RDU Airport Authority showed off its latest work in progress.

And quite a piece of work it is. Terminal 2 (the new name, it seems) will be big in size (890,000 square feet, triple the space of Terminal C) and cost ($570 million). Mostly, though, the new terminal will be a big opportunity.

This is one of the very first terminals designed and built in the post-9/11 airport-security age. So Raleigh-Durham International has a chance to show airports all over the country how to get it right -- for security, for efficiency and for customers' convenience.

The signs are encouraging. The design includes enough space for baggage screening to be handled backstage. There will be 10 security checkpoint lanes, up from four. In keeping with a self-service trend there'll be dozens of check-in kiosks. International flights get the facilities they need. There'll also be a generously sized hall in which to await (and await, and await...) arriving passengers.

All this below a soaring ceiling, in a building filled with light and art. Quite a change from the cramped, mid-1980s design of Terminal C, which was built for American Airlines as an East Coast hub. That didn't work out, and to its credit the airport authority eventually took control and began to build boldly.

A key step was construction of the huge parking garage connecting RDU's terminals. The job took forever, but the completed structure works well.

Now Terminal C is on its last wings. The part that remains is hanging on only until the first phase of the new terminal (with 17 gates) is finished next summer. By 2010, Terminal 2 is to be complete, with 32 gates in all. The old terminal will hardly be missed. Take a picture and tear it down.

As for Terminal 2, its ultimate test lies in the experience, not the architecture. For their $570 million, passengers deserve far better from the flight system than they've been getting. RDU's new terminal is a good place to start.