Lots of morning flights from RDU means parking’s tight overnight — for planes

Triangle travelers want early-morning flights, so about a quarter of the daily departures from Raleigh-Durham International Airport leave before 8 a.m.

To make sure the planes are available first thing in the morning, airlines are keeping them at RDU overnight, and parking has gotten tight. In the wee hours of the morning, all 36 gates at Terminal 2 are occupied and another 20 planes are parked around the airport campus, waiting for morning flights, says Michael Landguth, the airport’s president and CEO.

To help ease the parking crunch, RDU is building a special lot for planes, which it calls the Remain Overnight or RON apron. Contractors have ripped up a little-used general aviation area just north of Terminal 2, near the Observation Park, and are turning it into a parking lot for planes as large as a Boeing 777.

When it’s finished in the fall of 2020, the RON will be able to hold 15 to 18 planes. RDU expects to spend $36 million on the project, which includes moving a sewage pump station. The cost may seem high for a parking lot, but the pavement will be 40 inches thick, including 16 inches of Portland cement concrete on top, to handle the weight of a 777, said airport spokeswoman Stephanie Hawco.

“This project is very different from what DOT would do to pave an interstate highway,” Hawco wrote in an email.

Travelers getting an early start through RDU can see the morning rush in the long lines for coffee or at the security checkpoints, but they may not notice the shifting of planes from their overnight parking spots.

RDU’s busiest airline, Delta, has 20 or 21 early morning flights from 11 gates at RDU, according to spokeswoman Elizabeth Wolf. That means as many as 10 Delta jets are parked elsewhere at the airport overnight, waiting to be towed to gates when they’re available. Having a designated parking area close to Terminal 2 will make that movement easier and more efficient, Wolf said.

Unlike with cars, RDU doesn’t charge airlines to park their planes overnight; Landguth says the airport benefits from having the planes at hand for popular morning flights. But as the airport looks for sources of revenue to pay for other construction projects, including a new $350 million main runway, it may consider an overnight parking fee in the future, he said.

The construction of the RON apron will briefly close West International Drive, the road that connects the passenger terminals with the north part of the airport, including the general aviation terminal, park-and-ride lot 4 and the new Express lot. Blasting work will close the road for a few minutes twice a day, at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., from now through June 20.

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739,