Morrisville, N.C. — Raleigh-Durham International Airport officials broke ground Thursday on a $68 million makeover for its aging Terminal 1, referred to by many area travelers as "the big blue box."
The renovation, which is expected to be finished in January 2014, will expand ticketing, security checkpoint and baggage claim areas and add shops, restaurants and other amenities for travelers.
Some locals and many visitors said the upgrade is long overdue, noting the dreary terminal gives people a bad first impression of the Triangle.
"The city is nice and clean. The airport needs a little work," said Michelle Wilkerson, who was at RDU to pick up her mother. "We just moved here from New Orleans, and that airport needs a facelift, but I actually think this one is in worse shape. I was surprised when I moved here to see that."
All airlines except Southwest and AirTran have moved to Terminal 2 to accommodate the renovation, and RDU spokeswoman Mindy Hamlin said airlines will have room to add gates – and flights – in the coming years after the project is done.
“What this does is position us for future growth for 10, 20, 30 years,” Hamlin said.
During the first four months of this year, 1.41 million passengers traveled through RDU, up 2.7 percent from the 1.37 million passengers in the same period last year.
"The worst thing we can do is not be in a position to accommodate that future growth, and so that's why we're taking these steps – to make sure we're in position to handle that growth in this community," RDU Director Michael Landguth said.
Crews pulled out some of the blue metal panels from the Terminal 1 walls on Thursday, and airport officials signed them.
After the makeover, the terminal will resemble the $570 million Terminal 2, which opened in January 2011 and was recently named by Travel & Leisure magazine as one of the 20 coolest airport terminals in the world. The magazine said the terminal's architecture – it features long wooden beams and huge windows – reflects the history of North Carolina, and editors commended the terminal's streamlined ticketing process.
Airport officials said the renovation is being paid for with revenue from parking, restaurants and leasing fees from the airlines.