Triangle tourists and techies will find a faster route to northern California starting Aug. 15, when United Airlines launches daily nonstop flights from Raleigh-Durham International Airport to San Francisco.
With morning flights from RDU and return trips in the evening, the nonstop service will cut a few hours off the travel time for business and leisure travelers who now must change planes at larger airports for trips between the Triangle and the San Francisco Bay area.
Gov. Bev Perdue said the new service will boost economic development in the Triangle and North Carolina – as long as it attracts enough passengers to keep it profitable for the airline.
“Now we’ve really got to make sure that United feels like it’s a successful investment and that we can fill this plane coming and going,” Perdue told reporters at a news conference in RDU’s Terminal 2. “I hope the plane coming back from California is going to be loaded with investors and entrepreneurs, and the venture capital folks we need so much for the biopharma backbone of North Carolina. It’s a great day.”
San Francisco has long been the primary nonstop destination sought by Triangle executives lobbying for better air service from RDU. It was the top goal cited by Mike Landguth when he took over as the airport director last October.
Red Hat, Cisco Systems, NetApp and other technology employers here also have major hubs in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Each day on average, 800 travelers make the trip now between RDU and the Bay area, according to numbers compiled by the airport.
“This new offering will create a more efficient travel option for Cisco employees and strengthen the Triangle’s business climate overall,” said Kirsten Weeks, a spokeswoman for Cisco in Research Triangle Park.
RDU has struggled to provide West Coast service in the past. United expressed interest in starting a nonstop to San Francisco as long ago as 2000. Midway Airlines tried nonstops to Los Angeles and San Jose between 1997 and 2001.
Delta offers a nonstop flight to Los Angeles, but only three days a week during the warmer months of the year – with a service that has switched on and off several times since 2008. The Los Angeles flight departs in the evening and returns to RDU overnight.
“The Los Angeles service has tended not to be particularly user-friendly,” said Harvey A. Schmitt, president and CEO of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce.
Business and leisure travelers should find the San Francisco schedule more appealing, he said.
The United flight will leave RDU early in the morning and arrive before 10 a.m., in time to connect with a bank of outbound flights from United’s San Francisco hub to airports on four continents.
“It’s a great schedule,” Landguth said. “It’s not only flying to San Francisco. It provides great Pacific Rim connectivity both coming and going. The flight coming back leaves at 1 p.m. Pacific time and should arrive back here about 9 p.m. our time.”
United sees an opening
Ron Baur, a United Airlines vice president, acknowledged that other airlines have had difficulty selling enough tickets for West Coast nonstops from RDU. But he said United was optimistic.
“The beauty of this flight is that it allows us to connect RDU to one of our major hubs,” Baur said. “It really opens up Asia as well as connecting high tech centers here to the Silicon Valley and San Francisco. So it’s a great opportunity for United.”
Landguth said RDU promised United it would spend $250,000 in marketing support for the San Francisco flight, and to waive its landing fees – worth another $100,000 – for the first year.
No state incentives were involved, Perdue said.
“This is just a direct business deal,” Perdue said. “They looked at the market. They saw what we had in play in California, and the company was willing to take a risk. That’s the kind of deal you like to cut.”
United became the world’s biggest airline after its merger with Continental was completed last year, but it has been a minor player at RDU – handling only 6 percent of RDU’s 9.1 million travelers in 2011. San Francisco will be the sixth nonstop destination airport for United at RDU, and it will bring to 39 the number of nonstop destinations served by all airlines at RDU.
It remains to be seen whether United will be able to sell enough tickets to keep San Francisco on its RDU schedule.
“It’s like anything else: Use it or lose it,” Schmitt said.
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