Post-pandemic travel fills parking garage at RDU airport


Passengers head for the TSA security checkpoint in Terminal 2 at Raleigh-Durham International Airport on Monday, May 24. This coming Memorial Day weekend is expected to be the airport’s busiest time since before the coronavirus pandemic began.

Passengers head for the TSA security checkpoint in Terminal 2 at Raleigh-Durham International Airport on Monday, May 24. This coming Memorial Day weekend is expected to be the airport’s busiest time since before the coronavirus pandemic began.

rstradling@newsobserver.com

Raleigh-Durham International Airport will reopen its Economy 3 remote parking lot this week, as a rebound in air travel fills the giant parking deck between the terminals.

RDU closed all three of its remote parking lots in March 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic began to decimate air travel. Airport officials said last fall that they thought it could be years before those lots would be needed again.

But air travel has rebounded faster than expected, particularly between Thursdays and Sundays, when people visit family and friends for the weekend or begin and end a week-long vacation.

Memorial Day weekend is expected to be particularly busy, threatening to exhaust the nearly 11,500 spaces in the garage. RDU announced Monday morning that it will reopen the Economy 3 lot on Thursday.

“The parking garage has come very close to filling over the last several weekends. We’ve only had a few hundred unused parking spaces each day,” David Freedman, RDU’s chief finance officer, said Friday. “So essentially, we’re really just squeaking by.”

Economy 3 has 3,827 spaces off Aviation Parkway just north of Interstate 40. Freedman said last week that the airport had arranged for a company to provide drivers for the parking lot shuttle buses as soon as they’re needed.

As the deck neared capacity this past weekend, RDU began having people who work at the airport park in a remote lot and take special employee shuttles to the terminals, said Michael Landguth, RDU’s president. Landguth called that a contingency plan that can free up about 1,000 spaces.

“That’s Plan B,” Landguth said Monday. “Plan A is to try to get that Economy 3 open.”

The periodic scarcity of parking is not the only sign that people are flying again. Those traveling over Memorial Day and in the weeks that follow may once again encounter lines at airport security checkpoints, particularly early in the morning, or in getting a sandwich or a cup of coffee on the concourse.

Terminal businesses shuttered

The drop in air travel last year was devastating to the shops, kiosks and restaurants that cater to travelers in the terminals. Several will not reopen, while some others are still operating at reduced hours.

A half-dozen restaurants in Terminal 2, including California Pizza Kitchen and Bond Brothers Brewery, won’t be back; two others — 42nd Street Oyster Bar and the Starbucks at the bottom of the stairs just beyond the security checkpoint — will soon shut down when their leases expire.

The Starbucks in the ticketing area of Terminal 2 remains closed as well, and the one outside the security checkpoint in Terminal 1 has closed for good.

One addition: La Farm, the Cary bakery known for its crusty bread and white chocolate mini baguettes, will open a cafe at the bottom of the escalators in Terminal 2 next month. The opening has been delayed a year by the pandemic.

A challenge for retailers is that RDU’s recovery has been uneven and incomplete. While leisure travelers fill planes and the terminals on weekends, people are not yet flying for business during the week the way they used to, said Landguth, RDU’s president.

Business travel is still off about 75%, Landguth said, and probably won’t increase much until the fall.

“Until businesses get back into some sort of normal routine — that routine of people going to the offices, scheduling their trips — I don’t think you’ll see that spike too much,” he said.

In April, just under 300,000 people boarded flights at RDU, compared to only about 20,000 the same month a year ago. That growth is encouraging, Landguth said, but passenger traffic is still down about 42% from the same time in 2019.

RDU expects 221,000 people will pass through the airport the week of Memorial Day, with Thursday, Friday and next Monday being the busiest days. As many as 31,000 passengers are expected each of those days, Landguth said.

“It’s dominated by leisure — people wanting to take vacation,” he said. “I think we’ve all been cooped up enough.”

For people flying out of RDU in the coming weeks, here’s some advice:

Go to www.rdu.com and click on “Shop & Dine” to see what stores and restaurants are open and when. Some of your old favorites may be gone, while others are operating at reduced hours.

Bring a mask. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration has extended the COVID-19 mask requirement in airports and on commercial airplanes through Sept. 13. If you forget, the airport has free masks at its customer service desks.

Book parking in advance at www.rdu.com/parking/. For one thing, you’ll save a few bucks. Online rates are lower. For example, a spot in the RDU Central parking deck is $10 a day if you book online and $12 a day if you drive up and get a ticket. And while booking online doesn’t reserve you a particular spot, you will know one is available for you somewhere in the deck.

RDU’s long-term prognosis

Despite the busy weekends at RDU, airlines have not yet fully restored the service they cut with last year’s steep drop in demand. Before COVID-19, airlines flew nonstop to 57 destinations from RDU, including five international routes. Today, airlines fly nonstop to 38 places, including two international: Cancun, Mexico, and Montego Bay, Jamaica.

Landguth says he doesn’t know if or when the nonstop trans-Atlantic flights to London and Paris will return, now that European authorities are moving to accept visitors who have been vaccinated. It’s a little late for American and Delta to schedule those flights to take advantage of the summer travel season, he said.

But airlines are flying nonstop to the West Coast, an important benchmark for the airport. Delta and Alaska are serving Seattle, while JetBlue now flies nonstop to San Francisco and will be joined by United Airlines in July.

The West Coast flights could become popular as California-based Apple and Seattle-based Google establish new offices in the Triangle that will employ up to 4,000 people. Those jobs announcements and others in recent months suggest that demand for air travel at RDU will exceed pre-pandemic levels before too long, Landguth said.

“All the indications are we’re going to see some significant growth in the region,” he said. “We do believe this will fuel demand for air service beyond those 2019 levels.”

The challenge for RDU now is to prepare for that growth. When revenue dried up last year, the airport shelved several expansion plans, including new gates in Terminal 1, two new security lanes in Terminal 2 and a consolidated rental car facility within walking distance of both terminals. RDU has continued working to replace its main runway, which is nearing the end of its useful life, but no longer plans to lengthen it to handle flights to China.

On Friday, RDU’s governing board met to begin talking about which expansion projects to resume. Board members are expected to talk in more detail in July.

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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, hospitals during the coronavirus outbreak. He’s been a reporter or editor for 33 years, including the last 21 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.





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