RDU's peculiar layout

Staff WriterMay 10, 2004 

Over eight years of motherhood, I've learned to field a lot of tricky questions: What's it mean to be homosexual? What's a neutron? How do moles breathe? Why do girls like Barbies?

But here's one that really stumped me: "What's up with this airport?"

And geez, what could I say?

We were at RDU to pick up my husband from an early evening flight.

The plane was delayed, and the airline was slow to update its schedule.

So we had plenty of time to drive in circles, in a driving rain, and ponder the unusual setup and odd execution of our local international airport.

Afterward, I took some of my son's questions, and a few of my own, to Mindy Hamlin, a spokeswoman for the airport authority. First: Why does Terminal A have two parts?

According to Hamlin, the fault goes to the Federal Aviation Administration. Noting that A and B were linked, the FAA instructed RDU that the terminal should be considered one whole. As a result, Hamlin said, we have "A Extension" or "A North."

The signs, of course, make this clear as mud. And to make matters worse, some airlines that check in at the main Terminal A have their baggage claim in "A Extension" or "A North." I pitied the security guards explaining this to vehicle after vehicle the night we were there.

Of course, I still don't get why we cling to the phantom notion of a Terminal B. Why not at least call Terminal C "B"? Even to my kindergartner, jumping from "A" to "C" just doesn't make sense.

But speaking of Terminal C, and things not making sense, I had my own question to ask: Why are we tearing down two-thirds of the one terminal that looks halfway decent and is fairly easy to navigate?

Hamlin told me the "remodeling" of Terminal C is an effort to re-outfit the American Airlines hub to accommodate other airlines.

Still, while Terminal C is being upfitted, Terminal A remains an overcrowded labyrinth. Biggest complaint: Travelers are lined up downstairs and then sent upstairs for an identical line. Can you say holding pen? The airport says security there has been "streamlined." I'm not sure, after 45 minutes, most travelers would agree.

The good news, of course, is that this is a temporary situation. As the Terminal C improvements are finished -- a $350 million project -- some of the airlines currently in Terminal A will shift over to C and the congestion will be reduced, Hamlin said.

The bad news? Terminal C won't be done for five or six years, at best.

I look at the way the parking deck project dragged out, and I shudder.

Funny thing is, I wrote about the disastrous parking situation at RDU in one of my earliest columns. Now the parking deck is the best-looking structure at the airport, and probably the most efficient, with electronic signs directing you to the floors that are least full.

Perhaps the airport's other headaches will turn out as well.

Unfortunately, one of RDU's biggest problems is what isn't there, and probably never will be: light rail that comes right to the terminals. Under current plans, travelers will take trains to a certain point, then take shuttle buses the rest of the way.

Doesn't that sound convenient?

Planes, trains, automobiles -- and buses. To paraphrase my 8-year-old: What's up with that?

Ruth Sheehan can be reached at 829-4828 or rsheehan@newsobserver.com.

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