In early 2020, Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) was on track for another year of record-setting growth, with predictions the airport would serve 15 million travelers compared to 14.2 million in 2019. With the onset of the global health crisis, demand for air travel plunged to historic lows. In April, passenger traffic at RDU dropped to about 3% of 2019 levels. RDU lost more than half its nonstop flights, including all international destinations. The airport immediately went into survival mode, reducing its fiscal year budget by nearly half and deferring $96 million in construction projects.
Traffic increased incrementally during the year and settled by late 2020 to about 30% of 2019 levels. At year’s end, RDU served 37 nonstop routes, including two international destinations, compared to 57 nonstop routes with five international destinations in 2019. Although 2020 was a year of upheaval and change, RDU adapted quickly to the new reality and is positioning itself to lead the economic recovery for the Research Triangle region and the industry.
RDU Health and Safety Measures: RDU announced comprehensive new health and safety measures aimed at protecting travelers amid the global health crisis. New practices to protect the well-being of airport guests and employees include enhanced cleaning and disinfecting measures; signs, seat covers and floor decals that encourage physical distancing; acrylic barriers between employees and passengers; hand sanitizing stations throughout the terminals and a mask requirement. Travelers can also pay for parking online or with a smart phone as part of RDU’s touchless experience.
Airline Safety Measures: Airlines at RDU enhanced their passenger health and safety measures, including more stringent cleaning and disinfecting protocols, boarding back-to-front and implementing mask requirements with the ability to ban passengers who refuse to comply. Airplanes also filter cabin air with medical grade HEPA filters that remove 99.9% of viruses.
Fly Confident. Fly RDU.: The airport launched a health and safety campaign that details RDU’s new cleaning and disinfecting procedures, guidance from public health agencies, and information about operational changes due to the pandemic. An accompanying video shows the health and safety practices RDU implemented to protect against COVID-19 by following a passenger through the new travel experience from parking to boarding.
COVID-19 Task Force: The Airport Authority assembled a task force of experts from the university, non-profit, technology and biotech communities to help guide RDU’s actions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases. This collection of experts is guiding RDU as it establishes additional health practices to prepare for potential future outbreaks.
Terminal Operations Team: RDU established a Terminal Operations Team to ensure that rigorous new cleaning and disinfecting protocols and other public health requirements are being met. The team is increasing RDU’s focus on customer service and public health best practices by conducting frequent, multi-point inspections of airport facilities and building passenger confidence in air travel.
Emergency Operations: RDU activated its Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in March in response to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. During the 213-day activation, members of RDU’s Operations, Procurement and Risk Management teams managed the unprecedented challenges the pandemic placed on airport operations and worked with local, state and federal public health experts to ensure RDU adheres to public health best practices.
Operation Clean Sweep: RDU initiated Operation Clean Sweep (OCS) in response to the extreme downturn in passenger traffic and resulting loss of revenue caused by the global health crisis. Airport Authority employees were reassigned to complete high-priority work from painting the baggage makeup area and picking up litter to repairing terminal seats and testing the help phones across campus, among many other important tasks. More than 150 employees volunteered for at least one shift and most volunteered multiple times, spending a combined 1,800 hours working on OCS tasks.
Passenger Confidence: Surveys of RDU passengers showed that those who have flown during the COVID-19 pandemic feel more confident about flying again. Travelers said social distancing, the cleanliness of RDU’s facilities and the requirement that all passengers and airport employees wear a mask contributed to their enhanced feelings of safety. 81% of respondents agree RDU is taking the necessary steps to keep them safe.
AIR SERVICE RECOVERY
Incentive Programs: The Airport Authority implemented two air service incentive programs designed to recruit nonstop service to the markets most critical to the region’s economic health and maintain RDU as a competitive option for airlines looking to grow their networks. The new recruitment strategy positions RDU at the front of the line when airlines resume service on routes they dropped during the health crisis.
SAS Partnership: A collaboration between RDU and SAS led to the development of significantly improved passenger forecast models. Airport leaders sought alternative solutions because industry forecasts have become increasingly unreliable due to the impact of the health pandemic on air travel. RDU’s partnership with SAS allowed the airport to develop more precise forecasts that drive important business and planning decisions.
Runway Preservation: The decline in air travel allowed RDU to alternately shut down its primary and secondary runways for repairs in 2020. The temporary halt of international flights and the decreased demand for cross-country flights during the pandemic allowed RDU to close Runway 5L-23R around the clock for several weeks while repairs were made. The airport’s secondary runway, 5R-23L, was used for all commercial operations during the closure. As a result, the scheduled work was concluded several months earlier than planned. Localized repairs to the asphalt comprising Runway 5R-23L were made after the work on 5L-23R concluded. The preservation work is one of the airport’s most important capital projects and one of the few included in RDU’s “survival budget”.
Baggage Handling Upgrade: Bags got moving more efficiently and reliably in Terminal 2 thanks to an upgrade of the baggage handling control system. The $3 million project updated a system that was originally installed in 2008 and improved the flow of bags from ticketing, through security, and on to airlines to be loaded onto planes.
BUDGET AND FUNDING
Survival Budget: The Airport Authority Board approved a survival budget in June that reduced RDU’s spending by nearly 45%, including deferring $96 million in capital projects. The new budget allowed RDU to keep the lights on amid the weakened demand for air travel, adapt the airport to new public health best practices and prepare for recovery. Major capital projects that were paused include the Terminal 1 four gate expansion, Terminal 2 security gate expansion, Park Economy 3 expansion and road improvements.
Public Funding: The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) was signed into law to offer relief to airports amid the COVID-19 pandemic. RDU received $49.5 million in CARES Act funding to help pay for debt service, salaries and benefits. The airport also received nearly $18 million in state funding. State and federal grants account for approximately 45% of RDU’s survival budget due to depressed airport revenue from the extreme downturn in air travel.
Amazon Partnership: RDU entered into three agreements with Amazon to lease nearly 700 parking stalls for the storage of delivery vans and other vehicles. The agreements will generate more than $385,000 in new revenue that is not dependent on flight activity.
Pouring Rights: The Airport Authority reached a beverage services and sponsorship agreement with Raleigh-based Pepsi Bottling Ventures (PBV). The 10-year agreement makes PBV the semi-exclusive provider of non-alcoholic and non-brewed beverages at RDU and is expected to generate between $6 million and $7.7 million in direct funding.
“Jack Unstoppable”: Team RDU invited 10-year-old Jack, a young airport enthusiast who has had three open heart surgeries, for a special behind-the-scenes tour of RDU. Airport staff escorted Jack and his dad up to the ramp tower, where he watched airport workers coordinate how to get planes from the gate to the runway, and gave him an “insider” view of how luggage travels from check-in all the way to the aircraft.
YouTube Hit: Popular YouTuber Jeb Brooks took an American Airlines flight from RDU to show viewers how airports and airlines are working together to make the travel experience safe and healthy during COVID-19. The YouTube channel host captured new safety measures around RDU’s Terminal 2, starting with a smooth check-in using ParkRDU’s new touchless technology. The airline took Brooks onboard a Boeing 737 to see how their crews clean and disinfect the passenger cabin prior to boarding.
Podcast Launched: RDU launched The Fly Angle, a podcast that takes listeners behind-the-scenes at a large international airport. The podcast’s hosts cover hot topics at the airport, interview special guests and answer burning questions about little-known aspects of airport life. RDU’s new podcast is designed for everyone, from the occasional flyer to diehard aviation enthusiasts.
Delta Milestones: Delta Air Lines marked two milestones at RDU in 2020. Plane spotters converged on the airport to watch the final flight of Delta’s retiring MD88 aircraft. The airline also celebrated its 50th anniversary at RDU. Since Delta’s first flight from the airport in 1970, RDU has become one of its largest non-hub airports, with up to 81 flights per day to 31 destinations worldwide prior to the pandemic.
Iwo Jima Veteran: Fred Reidenbach, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and the Battle of Iwo Jima, visited with junior Marines at RDU as they transitioned from training to their first duty stations. Reidenbach, who is now 97, was a 22-year-old Marine Sergeant on Iwo Jima when the 36-day battle began on February 19, 1945.The USO of North Carolina hosted Reidenbach at the USO center in Terminal 2, where he greeted the young service members.
J.D. Power Top Ten: RDU was named the #9 large airport in passenger satisfaction by J.D. Power, marking the airport’s second consecutive appearance in the Top Ten. The study measures overall traveler satisfaction by assessing terminal facilities, ease of airport arrival and departure, baggage claim, security checkpoints, check-in and baggage check practices and food, beverage and retail.
Bond Refinancing: RDU’s Finance team saved the airport $88 million by refinancing bonds, for an annual savings of $4.5 to $7 million over the next 17 years. The refinancing reduced the airport’s outstanding debt by $63 million and was essential to funding the “survival budget” RDU is operating under during the COVID-19 crisis.
New Restaurants: RDU welcomed six new restaurant concepts featuring locally inspired choices, international flavors and two North Carolina breweries. The enhanced guest experience allowed travelers to enjoy locally brewed beer, fresh made-to-order sandwiches, Asian cuisine and other international options. Although some concessionaires closed during the pandemic, many have reopened under modified hours.