When I was a kid, my family and I flew all the time. Having been born in Phoenix, Sky Harbor (PHX) was my home airport, so to a wide-eyed, imaginative boy such as myself, as far as I knew, PHX was the next best thing to heaven. Besides Orlando (MCO), of course. At the time, basically no other airports existed.
Fast forward a couple decades, and here you find me now working in the aviation industry, galavanting across the country here and there to experience more of the culture that aviation entails. Since departing my tender years of childhood, I have afforded myself the opportunity to visit other airports, both large and small, and in so doing have crafted my personal list of favorite airports, as well as a list of those that aren’t.
Last year, I visited perhaps one of the best airports in the United States: Raleigh Durham International Airport (RDU). Since my visit, I’ve chatted with countless other travelers who share my affections for the airport, so much so that I now like to call RDU the “Goldilocks of airports.” During my visit, I was so enraptured, I couldn’t help but snap several shots of the terminals to share with you on my blog.
Geographically, RDU is positioned where it conveniently serves the population of its two namesake cities—Raleigh and Durham, North Carolina—as well as the smaller surrounding communities of Wake Forest, Cary, and Chapel Hill, among others.
Due to the disproportionately high number of colleges and universities, the vicinity of RDU has been aptly nicknamed the Research Triangle of North Carolina. Not surprisingly, tens of thousands of students, families, and faculty, plus millions more business travelers and tourists, fly through RDU every year. In fact, according to the airport website, RDU served over 12 million passengers in 2018, smashing all previous passenger handling records. Even with another, much larger airline hub just a three-hour drive away in Charlotte, RDU manages to win over the masses with what I perceive to be a trifecta of benefits.
I have already hinted at the first benefit: location. Beyond its central location within the greater Research Triangle metropolitan region, the airport is also located south-centrally on the Eastern Seaboard. This positioning allows for nearly equidistant connections to balmy vacation destinations in the Southeast and the Caribbean, and to the populated urban centers of the Midwest and Northeast. Historically, this feature has attracted numerous airline attempts at various hub-and-spoke schemes over the years, dating as far back as the early 1940s when aviation pioneer Eddie Rickenbacker pursued an Eastern Air Lines route connecting Florida with the Northeast corridor.
Decades before merging with US Airways, American Airlines tried its hand at establishing a hub at RDU. Unfortunately, the hub became a publicly recognized financial flop by the early 1990s. Even in its heyday, airline executives admitted that it just didn’t turn a profit. Following the merger, American shifted its attentions to the former US Air hub at Charlotte, and now Delta has since assumed the role as pack leader, going so far as to establish RDU as a focus city.
Today, the everyday passenger can still benefit from the airport’s location, as it remains a tempting position for whichever airlines care to master it—which now brings me to my second benefit.
Another reason why I consider RDU as the Goldilocks of airports is because it has just the right amount of airline service. In contrast to its much larger neighbor Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT) to the southwest, and its smaller, more immediate neighbor Piedmont Triad International Airport (GSO) to the west, RDU has seemingly the perfect number of air carriers serving it on a regular basis. You have the three remaining legacy carriers (American, Delta, and United), you have the low-cost carriers (Southwest, JetBlue, and Alaska), and you have the ultra-low cost carriers (Allegiant, Frontier, and Spirit).
Although RDU may not feature the heavy-weight long haul carriers like Emirates or Qantas, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as most destinations around the world can be reached via one stop. Not a bad gig if you ask me. Furthermore, practically every major domestic hub and focus in the country is accessible by non-stop flights from RDU. Again, not a bad deal.
Architecture & Amenities
So this final point may not be that important to many casual travelers, but for an aviation aficionado such as myself, I’m keen on the creativity used while providing all the basic creature comforts even the cheapest travelers would expect at a modern airport. And let me tell you, RDU most certainly provides.
To start, the design of airport is rather ingenious. There are two passenger terminals: the smaller Terminal 1, used exclusively at this time by Southwest Airlines; and the larger Terminal 2, used by everyone else. Beginning soon, Spirit and Via Air are supposedly going to be sharing Terminal 1 with Southwest, though no official announcement has been made about which gates are to be used exactly by whom. Over in Terminal 2, a pleasant balance of power appears to have been achieved amongst the other carriers and terminal space in Terminal 2 is immense, spacious, and gorgeous. Separating the two terminals are the parking garages and rental car lots, plus covered moving walkways to transport visitors between terminals.
Terminal 1 architecture shares both minimal and maximal visual elements. Although recently updated, I’m not particularly impressed with what’s been done. Although the artwork featured is individually creative and generally well done, as a collection I’ll admit I was on first impression a little underwhelmed, if not confused. Compared to the renovated and expanded Terminal 2, Terminal 1 is basic. Not plain, just basic. There’s nothing wrong with basic, though. After several days, weeks, or months of hard work, I imagine most business travelers and college students desire clear space for their weary minds and bodies.
A short ride across the moving walkways will take you to Terminal 2. Whereas Terminal 1 was basic, Terminal 2 is divine, complete with beautiful wood or faux wood panelling in the ceilings, shiny flooring, and exposed polished metal support frames. In one’s mind, it may sound like an odd conglomeration, but in a couple of pictures I believe I truly captured the beauty of this rustic, piedmont-inspired cornucopia for the eyes. The terminal was complete with multi-story sculptures finished off with poetic passages by local writers engraved into the floor.
For the first time in years, I felt true satisfaction and happiness standing in an airport. My flight that day had actually delayed by approximately three hours, but I wasn’t mad.
The airport was a perfect presentation and offered me enough diversity to explore for the time I had to wait for my flight. If ever you have the opportunity to visit RDU, or you have a choice to connect through RDU instead of another larger airport, do yourself a favor and visit. I promise you won’t regret the convenience, the ease of use, and pleasant atmosphere this airport provides. Like Goldilocks says, “It’s not too small. It’s not too large. It’s just right.”
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