Last summer, Raleigh-Durham International Airport was flying high. Its 243 daily departures in July represented a 9% increase from the previous year. Since then, it has lost altitude, giving back all it gained and then some. This July, RDU had just 219 daily departures, and some of those are scheduled to end soon.
Airlines are cutting back nationwide, but RDU has felt the pinch more than most of the nation’s 100 largest airports. Airlines have planned their schedules through November, and compared with last November, available seats on planes flying from RDU will drop 15% and flights will drop 19%, according to British aviation consultant OAG Worldwide Ltd. Only 14 of the top 100 airports will lose a higher percentage of seats, and only 10 will lose a higher percentage of flights. The departure of flights and seats has given regional economic developers pause. Companies consider airline connections when deciding where to move or expand. “If we are losing air service at RDU, that hinders our competitive position,” says Charles Hayes, CEO of the Research Triangle Regional Partnership, an economic-development nonprofit. “And if it goes on long-term, we’ll be adversely affected.”
High fuel costs may have hit RDU harder than other airports. Many of its planes carry only about 50 passengers, and those jets have high per-passenger costs, says David Beckerman, vice president of analytical services for OAG. “All things being equal, you’d rather operate a larger plane when fuel is high.”
Some of RDU’s rise and fall also can be attributed to the arrival and retreat of Houston-based ExpressJet. It started service at RDU in May 2007 with 13 daily departures but has struggled since then. It said in July that it will end its three remaining flights at RDU in September. The presence of Southwest Airlines, and the downward pressure it puts on fares, may discourage other airlines from keeping service at RDU. “Carriers don’t want to be where revenues are a little low,” Beckerman says. “Charlotte is more attractive. Richmond is more attractive. Roanoke is more attractive.”
Airport officials are taking the long view. Passenger boardings through the first four months of 2008 were up slightly from last year, and it’s not the first time airlines have cut flights during an economic slump. “We have been in similar situations before,” spokeswoman Mindy Hamlin says.
Durham officials say the Police Department was just following the or- ders of a state employee, former District Attorney Mike Nifong, when it charged three Duke University lacrosse players with rape (cover story, January). But the state subsequently declared the players innocent, and they want to make the city pay, as do even players who weren’t charged. By early July, Durham had spent $832,244 to defend itself against lawsuits arising from the case. Liability insurance covers payments between $500,000 and $5.5 million, Assistant City Attorney Kim Grantham says. The players who were charged originally demanded $30 million.