Writer: Joshua Andino
2 min read February 2023 — As demand continues to recover for Raleigh-Durham International Airport, congestion and traffic are top of mind for the airport’s current facilities and future plans.
The airport’s two terminals are designed to serve 16.5 million passengers, with current projections eclipsing that count by 2026. During a Friday strategy meeting over the airport’s future, newly minted Chief Development Officer Bill Sandifer, who prior to assuming the new role served as longtime airport COO, told the Triangle Business Journal that even if the 2014-2019 projections were halved, the airport would still see over 38 million passengers in 2050.
Travel is returning to RDU, explained Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority CEO Michael Landguth in an interview last year with Invest:. “We are seeing somewhere between 80% and 90% right now. We reached 90% of our 2019 levels early in the summer but it has been fluctuating,” said Landguth. A full recovery would happen in short order, assuming local economic activity remained robust. “I think it is probably another 12 to 18 months before we see consistent 2019 numbers again but a lot of that is based on the economic activity occurring in the local community,” he added.
By the end of 2022, the airport had seen a total of 11.8 million passengers, a 35% increase from the previous year and just under 17% of 2019’s high of 14.2 million. The airport is projected to hit 14.7 million passengers by the end of 2023.
“It is going to be very robust and the demand for leisure travel will continue to be very high in this market,” explained Dennis Edwards, CEO of the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau, to Invest: when asked about the tourism sector’s growth across the region. “We are seeing leisure demand on a national level as people get more comfortable with traveling,” he added.
Much of the airport’s campus development is guided by the Vision 2040 plan, with the masterplan focusing on airfield, terminals, ground transportation, and general aviation. Landgruth told Invest: that the replacing of the airport’s aging Runway 5L/23R and Taxiway B Replacement was one of the key priorities for the airport, and while the masterplan only allows for development upon meeting certain passenger metrics and criteria, the lack of a terminal 3 mention further highlights the urgency of demand RDU currently faces.
As it stands, the airport’s Terminal 2 provides 36 gates, yet full use is constricted due to the size and weight of today’s airliners and cargo planes, the airport is usually limited to about 30, explained Sandifer. The terminal can be expanded to accommodate 53 total gates and expand from 462,00 to 807,000 square feet, however potential plans are limited by the local geography.
Part of the solution has been efficiency in check-ins and security to help speed up the airport experience. “We are starting to see a lot of people coming to the airport again so we are investing to make sure their experience is seamless,” explained Landgruth. “That includes two additional checkpoint lanes and new technology that will allow for online parking reservations as well as a virtual kitchen that will allow travelers to order food from a choice of several different restaurants on your phone and pick it up at a facility within the airport,” he added.
The pending decision comes at a time when the airport is expected to continue to add new airlines and routes. Avelo Airlines is adding new flights to Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Orlando, Palm Beach, Sarasota and Tampa in February and employing a new Boeing Next-Generation 737 while moving to Terminal 1, and Breeze Airways is adding flights to Hartford, New Orleans and Providence, as well as Columbus and Jacksonville in May, in addition to 15 other destinations from Spirit, Frontier, and Southwest Airlines
Landguth told the Business Journal that the team was already thinking past potential Terminal 2 expansions, and considering a multibillion dollar Terminal 3. “There is a sense of urgency to get terminal infrastructure built,” he said. Despite the potential challenge the upgrades pose, Landguth told Invest: he remained excited for the future of the region and the airport’s growth.
“I am really excited about this community because of the number of people moving in from across the country and calling this their home. It indicates strong growth so our priority right now is to get the critical infrastructure in place so we can support the companies and people coming to the area and facilitate the continued growth of the community,” he said.
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