New heights for airport

Feb. 06, 2014 @ 06:26 PM

For nearly eight years, new construction or major renovations have been almost continuously underway at Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

Now, the end of that lengthy and ambitious project to remake the busy airport for the 21st century is underway.

Over the years, the airport had grown steadily. The booming economy of the Research Triangle – and the national and international focus of many of its businesses, research institutions and universities – boosted traffic at the airport to as many as 10 million passengers in a couple of recent years.

Additions and new terminals had come on line, but like many metro airports, the design of some of those structures was tailored to a hub-and-spoke system that had become awkward as airlines consolidated and shifted hub operations.

Meanwhile, some of RDU’s facilities dated to when the first terminal opened at the airport in 1955 -- when flying was a luxury and men and women dressed as if for church to board a plane.

So since early 2006, the airport has been on a building spree. The first phase of the new Terminal 2, the airport’s first new passenger facility in more than two decades, opened in October 2008. The second phase was completed in early 2011, and the overhaul of Terminal 1 began soon after.

The redevelopment and modernization of the airport both underscore the economic health of the Triangle and promise to help fuel it in the decades ahead. As airport spokesman Andrew Sawyer put it during a media preview of the soon-to-open Terminal 1 this week, “Today, you have a world-class airport that will fit the needs of the community today.”

Any recruiter for business, industry or academia will tell you that convenient access to a wide range of flight options is critically important to persuading facilities and people to come to an area.

In addition to the physical improvements, airport officials and business leaders in the Triangle continue to work hard to improve air travel options, as evidenced by increased service to West Coast destinations in recent years.

Beyond the practical, the airport with its expansion has paid attention to the aesthetic.  The new terminal boasts three public art installations, including the two-story glass-and-steel sculpture, “Metamorphosis.”

It has been just over a decade since the airport installed its first permanent public art. A tile mural depicting North Carolina's ecosystems was installed in 2003 in the pedestrian tunnel connecting the parking garage with Terminal 1. The “Triangle Icon” celebrating that year’s centennial of flight greets arriving passengers and others near the terminal area parking entry plaza.

Not to be overlooked, especially by frequent travelers at the airport, is the enhancement of shopping and eating options the expansion has brought.

For all that it brings to the region – practically and symbolically – we are pleased by the long-awaited completion of this major project and the confident investment in the region’s future it embodies.