Oct. 27--Friday was a typical day at Raleigh-Durham International Airport: Planes overhead, earthmovers chewing up dirt, work crews all around, temporary barriers guiding traffic.
"It's been under construction for as long as I can remember," said Steve Birchfield, 32, who grew up in Cary and was at RDU last week to pick up a relative.
But the nonstop catch-up construction that has dogged the airport for decades is finally winding down.
Millions of passengers who use RDU yearly won't see the change for three years. That's when its latest -- and some say greatest -- terminal is scheduled to be completed. The $350 million terminal will finally give RDU the capacity it needs to handle future growth, airport officials say.
"It's the last element in making this the airport it ought to be," said RDU director John Brantley, who expects the terminal to attract new airlines and concessions. "It's the last element of the puzzle." That puzzle includes more than $200 million spent since 1989 to build new roads, air cargo warehouses and general aviation hangars.
Terminal opening day won't be soon enough, travel industry and airline officials say. Their list of reasons RDU needs a new terminal include:
--Cramped quarters in Terminal A -- where AirTran, America West, Continental, Delta, Northwest, Southwest, and US Airways are located -- have prevented existing airlines from adding more flights to current destinations.
--Some airlines have passed on starting flights out of RDU because of a shortage of gates.
--Full service, sit-down restaurants have avoided RDU because potential customers are split between Terminal A and Terminal C, which houses Air Canada, American, American Eagle, United.
"It's desperately needed," said Eddie Albertson, vice president of sales and marketing for Travel Management Partners, a Raleigh corporate travel agency. On a recent trip to Houston, so many regional jets were packed outside Terminal A that there weren't enough jetways for passengers. Travelers had to walk across the tarmac to climb aboard.
"In certain parts of Terminal A, where Delta and US Airways are, you have regional jets wingtip to wingtip," Albertson said. Inside the terminal, "in many cases there's not enough seating for passengers, and restaurants at certain times are overflowing.
"It's not the best environment, and for many people, it's the first view of our area," said Albertson, a former local sales manager for US Airways.
Doug Clifton, Delta's local marketing manager, said consolidating more airlines in one building will make it easier to accommodate passengers when a flight is canceled. "Now they may have to bus the passengers from one terminal to the other and transfer the bags," Clifton said.
"The growth of service already here -- flights and concessions -- clearly has been inhibited by a lack of facilities," Brantley said. "Everybody is shoulder to shoulder. If someone comes along new, we have no space. We're trying to overcome all these things."
For Triangle travelers, boarding patterns will be dramatically altered. Among the changes:
--America West, Delta, Continental, Northwest and US Airways will be moved from Terminal A to Terminal C, where Air Canada, American, American Eagle and United will remain.
--Nearly all check-in will be self-service. About 160 self-service kiosks placed in a central area will allow passengers to receive boarding passes on multiple airlines.
-- Individual airlines will no longer have dedicated boarding gates. New technology will allow RDU officials to instantaneously change gates for flights to enhance terminal capacity.
--Ten side-by-side security lanes will replace the four now in Terminal C.
Passengers boarding low-fare carriers will also see changes. Southwest, AirTran and Independence Air will remain in Terminal A, but ticket desks, security and baggage pickup now at the northern end of the building will be consolidated at the center of the terminal.
The airport authority this week began increasing its budget for the building that will replace RDU's cramped Terminal C. The new price is $555 million.
Aug. 25--The concrete has been poured, the steel beams are up, and the Douglas fir trusses have been raised. At Raleigh-Durham International Airport's Terminal C, under construction since...
But judging by the paucity of passengers on the first day's flights, the two-month-old airline has some marketing hurdles.