ICYMI: Triangle Business Journal editorial by Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority President & CEO Michael Landguth

RDU’s new measures make safety a priority

Covid-19 has taken an extraordinary toll on the airline industry, with many airline CEOs and industry experts noting that the pandemic is the single most detrimental event in the industry’s history.

The impact on RDU is no exception. The number of passengers boarding flights at RDU bottomed out at 3 percent of 2019 levels in April. After a few months of slow but steady increases, we saw a Labor Day weekend high of 35 percent compared to the same holiday weekend in 2019 and our August traffic was 22 percent of last year’s levels. Although there are some encouraging signs, such as announcements from Delta Air Lines and American Airlines that they plan to resume nonstop service to Paris next spring and London this fall, passenger traffic is expected to flatten over the next few months and remain around 26 percent compared to last year.

RDU anticipates 5 million total passengers in 2020, about a third of the 14.2 million passengers served in 2019. Half of the five million projected passengers flew during the first quarter before Covid reached the state.

While the Raleigh-Durham market is well positioned to emerge from the pandemic-induced recession, the attributes that have traditionally been most attractive to airlines are the same ones currently contributing to the airport’s passenger declines.

RDU’s strong business traffic has historically contributed to the growth of legacy airlines that compete for market share of corporate travel. Yet companies’ indefinite moratorium on business-related travel has forced airlines to cut many of the routes supported by our community’s business travelers. RDU had 57 nonstop flights before the global health crisis, yet has only 26 in September.

RDU has also traditionally boasted a remarkably large share of international traffic relative to comparatively sized markets, leading American and Delta to operate transatlantic service to London and Paris. The pandemic has severely stunted international travel and industry experts expect its recovery will lag domestic demand by at least a year. RDU served five international destinations prior to Covid-19. Today we have none.

The airline industry is expected to emerge from this event smaller, with fewer airplanes available to serve markets compared to the past. Many larger aircraft used for long haul and international routes are grounded with no guarantee of returning.

RDU is preparing for a prolonged recovery that will likely stretch into 2024 or beyond and a “full recovery” is anticipated to be only 80 percent of 2019 levels. For comparison, while the 2008 recession impacted U.S. GDP for a two-year period, it took seven years for U.S. airline passenger traffic to recover to pre-recessionary levels.

Despite these challenges, the RDU team is working tirelessly to ensure the safety and comfort of passengers traveling during the pandemic. Travelers who fly through RDU today will notice a new travel experience.

RDU has intensified the cleaning and disinfecting of frequently touched surfaces, installed plexiglass barriers at ticket counters, added signage, floor decals and seat covers to remind passengers about physical distancing, and requires everyone at the airport to wear a mask. Guests who park at RDU can also enjoy a touch-free experience by reserving a spot at least 24 hours in advance online. New health and safety practices extend onto the aircraft, where airlines are requiring passengers to wear masks, changing their boarding practices, blocking seats and cleaning planes with more frequency and intensity. Fresh air is circulated into the cabin every two to three minutes and most aircraft have hospital grade filters that remove 99.9 percent of particles, including viruses such as Covid-19.

These efforts appear to be working. Recent data indicates that after flying through RDU, passengers became more confident in the safety of air travel. Those who are aware of RDU’s new health measures indicated that they felt safer flying and were more likely to travel.

With airline fares at historic lows, and airports and airlines teaming up to ensure the safety of all passengers, airline crew members and airport employees, the opportunity for travelers to visit loved ones, check in with a client or explore the nation’s open spaces remains strong.

Michael J. Landguth is president & CEO of the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority.