Raleigh, N.C. — Business has not returned to the boom times of 2000. But more people are flying in and out of Raleigh-Durham International Airport these days, and the airlines are responding.
A new airline, ExpressJet, will soon launch non-stop service to seven cities. A new flight will soon be heading daily to Denver from United Airlines. JetBlue is ramping up service to New York. American and American Eagle are adding destinations, and Delta recently launched non-stop service to Los Angeles.
"Airlines now have some confidence in the economy, and they're looking for new regions to add air service," said Mindy Hamlin, marketing communications manager for the RDU Airport Authority. "Luckily, they tell us our region sells itself. We have a lot of travelers, we have a strong economy and we're seeing airlines come in and add flights."
In all, some 30 additional daily flights will soon be winging their way in and out of RDU, bumping the airport's passenger traffic up from 9.4 million in 2006 to a projected 11.5 million this year.
“We’re definitely seeing a turnaround,” Hamlin said. “We’re still not where we were before Sept. 11 (2001). Still, we are supporting more flights and more passengers.”
RDU posted its third straight increase in annual passengers last year, up 1 percent from 9.3 million in 2005. The passenger number fell from a record 10.4 million in 2000 to a low of 7.9 million of 2003 following the terrorist attacks.
Passenger “load factors” – in other words, capacity – climbed to 76 percent last year from 71 percent in 2005. Airlines have committed to increasing the available number of seats to 6.4 million from 6 million last year, Hamlin said.
By June, she noted, the number of daily departures will hit 252, spread across 45 destinations. That’s up from 220 daily flights and 37 destinations in June 2006.
Another indicator of growth is the number of taxi trips to and from RDU. They were up 8 percent in 2006, marking the fourth consecutive annual increase in traffic.
Airline competition also has kept travelers pretty evenly divided.
American and American Eagle led the way in 2006 with 23 percent of passengers. Delta and Delta Connection were second at 19 percent, followed by Southwest at 18 percent, US Airways/America West and US Airways Express at 16.5 percent, Continental and Continental Express at 7 percent, Northwest and Northwest Express at 6.5 percent, United Express at 5 percent, AirTran at 3 percent, Air Canada at 1 percent, and JetBlue at 0.47 percent.
RDU is in the midst of a $570 million renovation of Terminal C to add seven gates to its existing 25 gates to handle the growing number of flights and passengers. The new gates are expected to open next summer.
"If I'm arriving, it's usually pretty OK, but when I'm flying out, sometimes it's a little crowded. But they seem to handle the crowds OK," said passenger Wanda Scott of Atlanta, who noted she travels through RDU about once a week.
Passengers are finding more amenities at the airport, ranging from the recently opened XpressSpa to a Starbucks.
"It's better than a lot of airports, especially New York. We've been through that one -- I won't mention its name -- but people should avoid it like the plague," passenger Lois Garcia of Pinehurst said.
“We have two primary concessionaires -- one for food, the other for retail -- and they listen to what flyers want,” Hamlin said. “Starbucks was something they wanted, and the other is the spa. The spa is definitely something you are seeing more of in airports across the country.”
Not every statistic showed improvement, however. Air cargo and flight operations declined 2 percent each in 2006, according to the annual report.