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RDU airport plans to make more room for arriving international passengers

Raleigh-Durham International Airport is moving to expand the arrivals area for international passengers, which can become overwhelmed when more than two overseas flights arrive at a time.

The Airport Authority has hired O’Brien Atkins Associates of Durham to create early designs to double the capacity of the arrivals area to 800 passengers at a time. RDU plans to build a 74,000-square-foot addition to the north side of Terminal 2, providing more for space for passengers to clear customs and border patrol and to claim their baggage.

Nearly 180,000 people arrived on international flights at RDU last year, 90 percent more than in 2014. Through August of this year, international arrivals are up 43 percent over last year, already nearly matching last year’s total.

RDU has two daily flights to and from Europe — Paris on Delta and London on American — but more international flights arrive from Mexico and Canada (though travelers from Canada clear customs before they board). Four airlines offer nonstop service between RDU and Cancun.

Many of those flights arrive in the afternoon, pouring travelers into a space designed to hold about 400 people, noted Bill Sandifer, the airport’s chief operating officer.

“This past winter, when we had Paris and London arrivals within a 15-minute window of each other, and then we had within that same time period three arrivals from Cancun, that becomes really challenging,” Sandifer said. “Put the math to it, you’re looking at about 750 passengers arriving in a peak hour.”

RDU has only four gates at the north end of Terminal 2 designed to handle arriving international flights, so there’s not much chance of more than 800 passengers trying to get through customs at once, Sandifer said. As RDU looks to attract more international flights in the future, the airport would have to craft the schedules so that no more than four are at the terminal at a time, he said.

Michael Landguth, RDU’s president, said there’s room for more international growth, because flights from Asia, Mexico City and South America would likely not overlap with those from Europe.

“Not everything’s going to arrive at the same time,” he said. “Asia’s not going to arrive at the same time as Europe.”

RDU eventually plans to add more gates to Terminal 2, which could mean more for international flights, but that won’t happen for at least a decade.

The contract approved Thursday will result in an early design for the expanded arrivals area in about six months, said Jaymes Carter, RDU’s director of buildings and building services. A more detailed final design would take a year or more after that, and construction could take up to two years, Carter said, meaning the expanded arrivals area will likely not be finished until 2024.

Making more room for international arrivals is one of several projects spelled out in RDU’s 25-year master plan, called Vision 2040, which was approved by the Federal Aviation Administration in late 2017. It also calls for replacing the main runway with a new, longer one capable of handling flights to Asia and for building a new rental car complex adjoining the main parking deck.

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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, rstradling@newsobserver.com.
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