RDU considers major terminal expansion to keep up with passenger growth

The smaller of the two passenger terminals at Raleigh-Durham International Airport could more than quadruple in size within the next decade, as the airport tries to keep up with unexpected passenger growth.

RDU already plans to open four gates in Terminal 1 next spring, bringing the total there to nine. With the new gates, low-cost carriers Frontier, Allegiant and Spirit airlines will leave Terminal 2 to join Southwest in Terminal 1.

On Tuesday, an architect hired by the airport presented conceptual plans for adding as many as a dozen more gates to Terminal 1, as well as the new baggage, ticketing and security screening areas needed in a bigger terminal.

RDU’s 25-year development plan, approved by the Federal Aviation Administration just two years ago, called for adding more gates to Terminal 2, the main terminal with 36. Before that can happen, though, the airport must build a new runway to make room for new extensions, or piers, off the existing terminal, and that probably won’t be finished until 2025 at the earliest, says Bill Sandifer, the airport’s chief operating officer.

In the meantime, passenger growth has far exceeded projections made in the airport’s development plan. RDU expects 7.1 million passengers will have boarded planes at the airport this year, a number the development plan did not anticipate reaching until 2031.

So RDU officials have been scrambling to find more space. Their first move was to revive four gates in Terminal 1 that had been mothballed after Terminal 2 opened starting in 2008.

Now they’re looking again to Terminal 1, which at one time had as many as 23 gates when it was known as Terminal A. The parts of the building that housed most of those gates have been demolished, but the land is available to build something new.

One challenge with Terminal 1 is that it lies in a narrow space between the road and the airfield, said Charles Morley, the architect with Gensler who came up with conceptual plans.

“Terminal 1 is a very narrow terminal,” Morley said. “It’s a long terminal.”

To buy more space, Morley proposes a new area for security screening and possibly ticketing built over the road and the drop-off and loading zone. The “security bridge,” as he called it, would connect directly to the adjoining parking deck and the planned car rental garage, easing entry into the airport, he said.

Morley suggests adding seven gates at the north end of Terminal 1, then pausing to reassess whether that’s enough. Five additional gates could then be built at the south end, without much disruption.

Building all 12 new gates, plus the necessary baggage, security and ticketing areas, would cost about $500 million, he said. With 21 gates total, the concourse would be roughly the same size as the one in Terminal 2, he said.

It’s too soon to determine who would use the new gates or which airlines might move from Terminal 2, said Michael Landguth, RDU’s president. Landguth told Airport Authority members at the outset that the proposed expansion was conceptual and that airport officials would return with more details in several months.

“I want you to be thinking about this as a possible option,” he said.

The number of people boarding flights at RDU grew slowly in the early years of this decade, as the country emerged from the recession. But as the economy picked up and as low-cost carriers arrived and expanded at RDU, passenger traffic grew, too.

About 4.6 million people flew out of RDU in 2013; last year that number reached 6.4 million and is expected to grow another 10 percent this year.

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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,