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.
John B. Harris Jr., a retired banking executive and member of the airport authority in the 1980s, said officials first considered a new terminal in the 1960s. But plans were shelved when Wake voters defeated a 1967 bond issue that also would have paid for a new runway.
"It's been a hodgepodge from the very beginning, because we never had any money," Harris said.
In the beginning, the needs were so many that priorities often shifted. When resurfacing a runway -- the only one long enough to accommodate airliners -- shut down the airport for two weeks in 1976, the new terminal was sidelined. Instead, Terminal A was built as a temporary facility that would be converted into a hangar, and work started on a new runway. It opened in 1986 after four years of construction.
But when American chose RDU for a hub and built Terminal C, other airlines stayed congregated in Terminal A. By the early 1990s, the facility was inadequate despite interior and exterior upgrades and expansions. Terminal B, the original terminal once slated for demolition, was connected to add more room, but space was quickly taken up.
American pulled out of the hub in 1995 and the authority once again began planning for a new terminal. But those plans were shelved after the 2001 terrorist attacks caused air travel to plummet. Now, with air travel picking back up, the authority is finally building the terminal that members started dreaming about 40 years ago.
The project will be paid for with airport bonds, RDU revenue and a passenger facility charge of $4.50 per ticket, said Mindy Hamlin, an airport representative. The airport issued $75 million in bonds this year and plans another issue as construction progresses. No tax money will be used for the project, Hamlin said.
Catch-up projects will be over, but Brantley said RDU visitors will still see construction sporadically.
"The terminal will be there 40 or 50 years. They'll always be renovations, but every five or 10 years, we won't be having to add on to it," Brantley said.
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