Like many residents in Raleigh in the 1980s, my family had relocated there from the north. As the Research Triangle Park emerged as one of the country’s most prominent hotspots for technology companies, businesses began moving employees by the thousands down south.
Not surprisingly, Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) saw tremendous growth during this time to accommodate the onslaught of businesses and people calling the city of oaks home. Nearly as amazing as the growth that began in nearly 30 years ago is the fact that such growth continues to boom today, making RDU one of the most important airports in the southeast.
According to RDU’s official website, The airport that is now known as RDU was created in the late 1930s by the state of North Carolina. Construction on the airport would begin in the early 1940s with the onset of World War II turning the airport into an Army air field and was used for military training until 1948.
Commercial flights to the airport began in 1942 with Eastern Airlines which served cities along the east coast (a flight from Raleigh to New York took over four hours and stopped in four cities along the way).
More commercial airlines would begin serving the airport and the first terminal building eventually opened in 1955. The airport saw modest growth over the following decades with more routes and new airlines coming to RDU. But by the beginning of the 1980s only five airlines served the airport and RDU remained a small, regional airport.
In 1985 however, that would begin to change when American Airlines arrived and began plotting a way to turn Raleigh into a connecting hub in the southeast. By 1987, American became RDU’s first hub airline and had built a brand new hub to help accommodate increased traffic. In 1985 RDU handled 2.7 million passengers. By 1988 it was 7.3 and surpassed 9 million in 1990.
But American Airlines struggled to turn RDU into a profitable hub with Charlotte to the west and one of the world’s largest airports, Atlanta, only a few hundred miles to the south. Air traffic hit 9.9 million in 1992 but by 1995 American had pulled out almost all of its operations, aside from a few regional routes and a daily flight to London-Gatwick, and the airport’s traffic plummeted. Traffic from fell from 8.9 million passengers in 1994 to 5.9 million passengers the following year.
But RDU wasn’t going anywhere. Thanks to Raleigh’s booming technology sector fueled the nearby Research Triangle Park, it seemed that the airport could still attract high passenger levels without an airline redirecting passengers though its gates. High demand along with a shift by airlines away from the “hub and spoke” system led by budget airlines such as Southwest, helped Raleigh jump back to prominence and five years after American left the city, more than 10 million passengers were passing through the airport each year.
The problem now became keeping up with the growth and re-furbishing old terminals without financing from a prominent hub airline (which is how airport projects are usually funded).
Airport renovations helped to modernize the airport culminating in the demolition of American Airlines old terminal, Terminal C, to make way for the much-larger Terminal 2 which was opened in two phases with the final phase finishing earlier this year.
The history of RDU dates back over 70 years but the airport that exists today is a far cry from the one that existed in the 1940s. It’s even drastically different than it was just over a decade ago. Thanks to a high level of originating traffic, RDU is no longer a connecting airport but a destination airport making its longterm outlook a very positive and not tied as strongly to any particular airline.
And as along as the area remains one of the country’s fastest growing, RDU will be certainly continue to play a critical role in welcoming the tens of thousands of new people who are still flocking to this region each year.