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Ask Anything: 10 questions with RDU's airport director

RDU Airport Director John Brantley answers your questions about the fear of flying, airport parking and more.

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RDU Airport Director John Brantley
How often does one of the planes you supervise have a life-threatening problem? I have a terrible fear of flying but it’s required sometimes for personal things, and so far, I have had a great experience at RDU (except in parking, whew, lots of walking!!). Thanks for answering, if you do happen to answer. – Kerri Connelly, Haw River

The Airport Authority doesn’t supervise (or control) aircraft. Control of aircraft in the air and while taxiing on the ground is performed by air traffic controllers employed by the Federal Aviation Administration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

That being said, real in-flight emergencies involving commercial aircraft are very infrequent. There are times that pilots report a possible problem to air traffic control as a precaution.

For example, one of the green lights in the cockpit that tells the pilot the landing gear is fully extended and locked may not work correctly, causing the pilot to believe the gear isn’t down and locked. The light may be out because the bulb burned out, which can be checked by switching bulbs. The pilot may do a “low fly by” of the control tower so the air traffic controllers can verify that the gear is down.

Most often, they find that upon further investigation perceived problems are not as serious as they may initially appear to be. In-flight emergencies are few given the number of flights that operate every day.

Is it true that the proposed light rail service for the Triangle bypassed the airport to protect the parking fees generated by the airport lots? – Paul Guthery, Raleigh

No, it is not true. The Triangle Transit Authority analyzed the situation in its early planning and concluded that airport ridership would be insufficient for many years to support the many millions of dollars of additional cost that would be incurred to build tracks outside of the North Carolina Railroad corridor to come to the airport and then return to that corridor.

This decision was later confirmed by further analysis during preparation of the TTA’s Environmental Impact Study. The Airport Authority has said many times that public transit service between RDU and any or all of the communities in the Triangle region may be expected to have little or no negative impact on public parking volume and revenue at the airport.

The Airport Authority welcomes public transit service to RDU, but also believes that it is far more likely that it will have to construct a fixed link to a regional transit hub at the boundary of the Research Triangle Park. Such a link would most likely be extended to the airport by the TTA or another regional public transportation agency.

Why does RDU charge so much for wireless Internet? So many airports offer this service at no charge. It is something that the airport could do for business travelers that would mean so much. – Jason, Raleigh

Providing Internet connectivity in the terminals doesn’t come at no cost to the Airport Authority.

Several years ago, we contracted with BellSouth/AT&T to provide the wireless infrastructure in Terminals A and C, which must serve not just the public but also the airlines and other tenants. Terminal C has now been closed, so BellSouth/AT&T had to recover its investment there very quickly.

The infrastructure in new Terminal 2 has been provided by the Airport Authority and very shortly will be operational. Some airports, generally the lower activity ones, have elected to pay wireless providers for the service and in turn offer it free to their customers, while most of the higher activity ones provide the service on a “customer pays” basis.

Wireless use in this region is very heavy. Since the airport isn’t supported by taxes and must pay the expense of its development, operation and maintenance from user fees and charges, services that generate revenue are very important to its operation.

A few years ago a drunk man jumped a fence at RDU at night and boarded a plane. How can I be expected to take a security checkpoint seriously after that? – Tom Dempsey, Raleigh

The man to whom you refer was spotted by aircraft cleaning workers upon boarding the aircraft who promptly called airport police, and he was quickly apprehended and charged with violating federal law. Thus, the security system worked.

Subsequently, razor wire was installed atop the security fence as a further deterrent. Aviation security takes a layered approach, with each layer overlapping other layers. You may successfully evade one layer, but you won’t evade all.

The fact that no commercial aircraft has been commandeered or attacked in the U.S. since Sept. 11, 2001 should be strong evidence that the security system is working and is effective.

My question is about long-term parking. I understand from the shuttle bus drivers that several months ago the bus schedule was adjusted so that the buses run less frequently. This results in longer wait times for a shuttle bus. In my case, I typically have my wife and small children waiting for me to pick up the car and return to the terminal, so this extra wait time is particularly irksome. Are you aware of the inconvenience to passengers from the increased shuttle bus wait times (which weren't great to begin with)? And now that the price of gas has dropped, are you adjusting the schedule back? – Danny Eskennazi, Chapel Hill

The cost of fuel, the lessened use of the two remote parking lots, an emphasis on maintaining consistent timing between successive buses, and our efforts to better match the number of buses in operation with passenger activity, all have contributed to improving the efficiency of RDU’s shuttle bus operation.

With the cost of the bus operation included, the remote lots do not cover their costs but are operated today so the customer is afforded a choice. Cutting back from three to two buses serving each of the remote lots resulted in substantial savings in fuel consumption.

Our commitment is and has been to provide a shuttle bus at least every 20 minutes. The actual time between buses is now 17-18 minutes versus 11-12 minutes before. We believe that is a very appropriate and reasonable level of service for these facilities. If traffic growth resumes next Spring and Summer and the level of use of the remote lots increases significantly, returning to three buses serving each lot may well be necessary.

Does RDU have an employee satisfaction survey? Would you support management reviews and a component of compensation be graded by such survey results? – Mark Andrew, Raleigh

An internal (Airport Authority) employee survey is being conducted later this month. Some airport tenants also survey their employees. Performance evaluations of all Airport Authority employees cover a number of factors, each of which affects their performance rating and thus influences any adjustment in their compensation that may be in order.

With outside assistance, we are now undertaking a comprehensive review of our performance evaluation and merit-based compensation process, including the findings and benefits of the employee survey and whether it should be repeated at a defined interval.

That review, the conclusions drawn from it, and the recommendations of our consultant will guide our staff and Board in deciding upon any restructuring of the evaluation process that may be in order.

RDU is going to figure large in the success of our new convention center. Just how does the airport intend to handle an influx of an additional 20,000 or more people in a 24-hour period and provide the transportation necessary to get them to their hotels? – Steve Crisp, Raleigh

At present, total arriving or departing passengers at RDU on a peak day is no more than 18,000. That is with 90 percent or more of the seats on departing or arriving flights being filled.

For a day or two prior to large conventions beginning or the day after they conclude, the proportion of RDU passengers that are non-residents may be somewhat larger than normal, but it won’t be double or triple.

In addition to taxis, rental cars, and Triangle Transit’s frequent bus service, SuperShuttle will initiate frequent scheduled van service to the downtown hotels the first of the year, so that will be yet another means of ground transportation for out-of-area convention attendees.

How much money did the airport lose when the terminal was closed? I remember millions of dollars spent to lure American Airways here. And then we needed that terminal updated?? Who is getting a kickback? The airport is ever changing. I don't want my tax money spent like that. The money is going somewhere. I want to know where. – Annette Dorman, Wendell

Many people appear to have the misconception that local tax revenues are used to support RDU. The truth is that the Airport Authority earns the money it spends developing, operating and maintaining the airport.

Revenue is generated from public parking fees, licensing fees on car rentals, landing fees and building rents paid by the airlines, operating fees paid by food/beverage and retail concessionaires, rental of ground on which airport tenants have built facilities, other building space rents, fuel storage, etc.

The Airport Authority has no power to tax, so it can’t assess taxes. The only local “tax” revenues it receives are $12,500 annually from each of its four underlying local governments (the cities of Raleigh and Durham and the counties of Durham and Wake). Since its annual operating revenue is now a little more than $85 million, the total of $50,000 is about one twentieth of 1 percent of that amount.

The Airport Authority did not provide any incentives to American Airlines. The airline paid the full cost of building all of the facilities that were constructed for the hub it operated from 1987 until 1995 and the one Midway operated from 1995 until 2002. The money to build the hub came from special revenue bonds for whose repayment American was solely responsible. All of those bonds were paid off by the spring of 2002.

Hi John, a few years ago, I was on a smaller plane (maybe 30 passengers), flying into an airport that was situated in a valley surrounded by mountains. Winds on the ground were averaging around 50-60 mph. Needless to say, the flight was quite terrifying for a nervous flyer like myself. I am interested in knowing who makes decisions regarding whether or not weather conditions are safe for flying. Is it the pilot? Air traffic control? What is the maximum wind speed that planes can safely fly in? Any advice for this nervous flyer is appreciated! – Christine, Chapel Hill

Prior to departure of a flight, the airline’s operations center makes the decision to dispatch or cancel the flight. Once the flight is airborne, the pilot makes the decision to attempt the approach or to divert to another airport, generally after consulting with the operations center and air traffic control and based on his/her familiarity with the destination airport and its surroundings.

Depending upon the size of the aircraft, aircraft can safely operate in pretty strong winds. However, if there are strong wind gusts and/or the wind is strong and blowing generally perpendicular to the runway centerline (called a crosswind), there is much greater risk in trying to land or take off.

Large commercial aircraft can operate in sustained crosswinds up to about 40 mph, while very small aircraft may not be readily controllable in crosswinds above 10 mph.

Over the years, flight training has been greatly enhanced through the use of full-motion simulators, which allow both normal operating and emergency procedures to be practiced repeatedly and pilots to be examined and re-certified every six months or year. Accidents are few and very rare given the number of flights that operate every day.

Whenever (my family and I) have to go to RDU to pick someone up, we almost always go early and spend some time at the RDU Observation Park watching the takeoffs and landings. What about a restaurant, outside of security, that overlooks the runways so we could have a nice place to eat while waiting, where business people could meet their incoming guests and get them back out easily, or even just an interesting place to go out for the night? I know security is a priority but what an observation deck in the tower for viewing the whole airport, or guided airport tours for kids i.e. how planes are fueled, taxied, baggage handling, cleaning/maintenance? If kids are awed by a fire-engine or police station, imagine the wow factor at an airport. You could even make it an entertainment destination for b-day parties with flight simulators games, and learning stations about aeronautics, like an interactive air and space museum. – Christian, Clayton

RDU offers just what you are looking for at its General Aviation Terminal and Crosswinds Café, which is located on the terminal’s mezzanine level. The GA Terminal is located between Landmark Aviation and TAC Air about half a block from the FAA Control Tower.

Crosswinds Café is open from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. weekdays and from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. on weekend days. It serves sandwiches, salads, hamburgers and daily specials.

Tables and chairs outside the café and elsewhere on the mezzanine overlook the large private aviation ramp and the northeast end of Runway 5R-23L, so airliners, corporate jets and small aircraft can be seen coming and going while you are there.

Parking is in the pay lots adjoining Landmark and TAC Air, but unless you are there for more than four hours there is no charge.

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