In the last year, five airlines have added new flights from Raleigh-Durham International Airport, including trips to four new nonstop destinations – Paris, New Orleans, Austin, Texas, and soon San Juan, Puerto Rico.
RDU officials want to use this momentum to attract more airlines and flights to the Triangle, setting new and ambitious goals for the airport’s future.
Those goals include direct connections to places like San Diego, Kansas City, Mo., South America and China, which would add to RDU’s list of 48 nonstop destinations once Allegiant Air kicks off its twice-weekly flights to San Juan in December.
“All of the routes that we’ve seen out of RDU have done pretty well,” said Kristen Schilling-Gonzales, Allegiant’s director of planning. “We’ve seen some pretty strong bookings most recently on the San Juan flight.”
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While RDU officials have been working to attract a nonstop flight to San Juan for a couple years, a new incentive program the Airport Authority put in place in April helped seal the deal. Allegiant will receive marketing assistance and waived landing fees for one year.
“Quite honestly, the investment to test a new route is pretty high,” Schilling-Gonzales said. “So we’re not looking at being incentivized for years to come. It’s generally what can we do to offset the initial start-up costs.”
Airlines that add international flights and new airlines that come to RDU also can benefit from the incentives program.
In March, Virgin America announced it would come to RDU as the airport’s 10th carrier when it begins flights to San Francisco in October. Now the airport is eyeing other airlines, particularly low-cost carriers such as Spirit Airlines.
“The incentives are like the cherry on top,” said Kristie VanAuken, RDU’s vice president of communications and community affairs. “This doesn’t work unless the business case is solid, so that is the number one thing. That is where we spend 95 percent of our energy, because we want the service to be successful for the long haul.”
Attracting new flights starts with relationships with airlines and “building the business case around each new market,” VanAuken said. But making the case takes time.
Austin, Texas, was RDU’s top market in terms of passenger demand without a nonstop flight until Delta Air Lines began flying there in March. VanAuken said it took four years of discussions with airlines to make that connection a reality.
Now San Diego is the top unserved destination, followed by Kansas City, Portland, Ore., San Jose, Calif., and San Antonio. Longer flights like San Diego are tougher to get because they require a larger airplane, and airlines must dedicate more time to the flights.
Attracting a new flight involves understanding the priorities of different airlines. For example, Allegiant goes for vacation spots or other places that draw leisure travelers. The airline also aims for destinations that are more than eight hours away by car but, in most cases, are close enough to allow the same plane to make a round trip each day.
Puerto Rico is Allegiant’s first destination from RDU that will deviate from this round-trip practice.
Delta’s priority is to offer flights to the most destinations around the world on larger aircraft and to rely on partners to get passengers to smaller markets. For example, someone flying from the United States to China would land in either Beijing or Shanghai and then fly with a partner airline to any other Chinese destination.
It can take years for airports to get a new flight and even longer to attract international flights, like RDU’s long-sought-after direct route to China.
“It’s the brass ring,” VanAuken said. “We feel like this community, the Triangle region, can support a nonstop to China and so what we want to do is start building the business case around that.”
RDU has been working on making the case for two years. Officials have spoken with corporations in the region that might be interested in a direct flight to China for their employees.
But it might be a tough sell. Delta, for example, only offers direct flights to China from three American cities – Detroit, Seattle and Los Angeles.
“The number one driver of Delta adding a new route is going to be passenger demand and the ability to generate revenue for the airline,” Delta spokesman Anthony Black said. “If that doesn’t happen, all other things are irrelevant.”
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-829-4845: @KTrogdon