There is no question the Raleigh-Durham International Airport has bounced back from the Great Recession, announcing several new flights and a record-breaking number of passengers this year.
About 344 flights travel to and from RDU each day, and nearly 11 million people are expected to pass through the airport by the end of 2016. That will top the airport’s current record, set in 2000, of 10.4 million passengers.
In 2009, RDU saw about 9 million passengers, down from 9.7 million the prior year, likely a sign of economic trouble and uncertainty.
Growth in recent years has led to some challenges, including parking issues and longer wait times at security checkpoints.
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But RDU officials hope this year’s successes, including a new nonstop flight to Paris, will push them to their next goal – a nonstop flight to China as early as 2019.
“We’re blown away,” said Kristie VanAuken, RDU’s vice president of communications and community affairs. “The community has responded so well to new flights and new services that we’re just literally blown away by it and very excited as we roll into 2017.”
Several new nonstop flights will kick off in the coming year, including New Orleans in February and Austin, Texas, in March.
American Airlines has decided to upgrade its nonstop service to London’s Heathrow Airport to a Boeing 777-200 starting March 5. This larger aircraft will provide about 40 additional seats and in-seat entertainment like live television and wireless internet service.
“That just signals really strong international demand, and that means that the business community is robust, it’s global and it’s growing,” VanAuken said. “That’s really good news for us because we hope to add more international nonstops over the years.”
VanAuken said the “next big prize” is China even though it could be two or three years before the airport “sees any movement on that.”
The biggest flight announcement of the year was Delta’s addition of a nonstop flight from RDU to Paris. Delta’s previous attempt to start direct service to Paris was canceled a few weeks after it was announced in November 2008 because of the economic downturn.
“Paris is a key win for the community, as it not only provides a nonstop flight to one of the world’s biggest cities, but Paris also provides for many connections throughout Europe, the Middle East and India, all of which are growing segments from RDU,” airport spokesman Andrew Sawyer said.
With growth has come an expanding list of infrastructure and maintenance demands, as well as customer-service issues.
The airport has responded through changes to its parking program. Travelers will soon be able to book and pay for their parking online at parkrdu.com, partly to ensure they have a place to park even at the busiest times of the year. Some changes were also made to the parking garage. Online booking was expected to be initiated in May 2016 but has been delayed because of software issues.
RDU has embraced the use of technology in an effort to shorten lines at the checkpoints and customs areas and has added more on-the-ground staff, Sawyer said.
In October, the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority, an eight-member board, approved a 25-year master plan, called Vision 2040.
There was some pushback from outdoor enthusiasts who wanted to preserve land surrounding the airport for hiking and biking trails. But airport officials said their main focus is rebuilding the longest runway in three to five years and making it possible to add 23 new gates as needed in the next 25 years.
If the useful life of the runway were to end before a new one is built, the airport would have only one commercial service runway, and it isn’t long enough to accommodate transatlantic or transcontinental service.
RDU officials also plan to kick off the design of a new consolidated rental car facility, which would put rental cars within walking distance of the terminals, and begin the renovation of the 11,000-space parking garage.
“To do that we are going to have to have some temporary disruptions,” VanAuken said, adding that there will be more shuttles.
Staff hope to implement a text-messaging feature to let people know in advance how full parking lots are before they arrive.
For now, though, RDU is benefiting from continued development in the Triangle.
“The growth has really been spurred, we feel, primarily by this red-hot community,” VanAuken said. “The community is really dynamic and people are moving here, companies are moving here. That kind of new economy and economic excitement stimulates aviation demand.”
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-829-4845: @KTrogdon