Out of curiosity more than need—not to mention having plenty of time on my hands right now—I drove out to the Raleigh-Durham Airport on Saturday, May 9 (2020) to have a look around. I had read that RDU traffic was down 97% since mid-March, and that drastic decline was impossible for me to comprehend from afar.
What I witnessed was startling, even though I was forewarned: an airport all but abandoned. Empty parking decks, no cars dropping off or picking up at curbside, a trickle of passengers at check-in counters (none at all at Delta), no TSA lines whatsoever at the security screen, and silent, inert baggage carousels devoid of luggage.
Much as I have whined and griped over five decades about how poorly airlines have treated me, I miss traveling by air, and I miss airports, the portals to the world, especially my home terminal, RDU. Going there portends, for me, thrilling adventure to other places.
Home indeed: My first flight was from Raleigh-Durham in 1960. The airport has been critically important both to my career as a management consultant and to satisfy my yen for travel. That’s sixty years of flying—an astonishing realization, even to me.
I recently learned that RDU celebrated 75 years of commercial flights in 2018, during which time it grew from 1,160 to 11.6 million annual passengers. The first commercial flight landed at what was then Raleigh-Durham Army Airfield on May 1, 1943, an Eastern Airlines DC-3 aircraft going to Florida. So I’ve been flying out of RDU for 60 of its 77 years of existence.
Unhappily, however, I wasn’t embarking to some exotic place, or even to prosaic Cleveland, this past Saturday. I just wanted to see the familiar place in the midst of the COVID-19 shutdown.
Driving into the airport, I noticed only the close-in parking garages are open, and every floor appeared to be bare when I got close enough to see them.
A single car appeared to drop off someone.
Inside, the terminal was eerily quiet, like a cathedral on a weekday, with only a few passengers checking in for a United flight leaving soon, and no customers at AA or DL.
The TSA Pre lane was closed altogether, but it did not matter because there were no queues at security.
Having heard that public restrooms are closed at some gas stations, I checked out the RDU toilets (well, at least the men’s side) and found them open.
On the lower level I found the dearth of activity around the inactive luggage carousels discouragingly tomb-like.
In January, Raleigh-Durham boasted ten airlines and 400 daily flights to 57 nonstop destinations, including 5 international cities. Now the information board shows an anemic flight schedule.
Back upstairs at the check-in counters, I asked the lone Delta agent on duty how many flights DL was operating from RDU at present every day: two to Atlanta, one to Minneapolis, one to Detroit. Before the pandemic, Delta was the busiest airline at Raleigh-Durham, having more than doubled service since 2010, as well as adding 19 additional destinations and more than 25,000 weekly seats.
Will RDU and other airports recover? The challenges pile up:
- How to guarantee safe social distance in an inherently crowded place designed specifically to move millions of people in close proximity to one another on and off planes
- How to properly clean airport spaces that become identified as hot spots while continuing to operate efficiently
- Whether airlines will choose to keep passengers on planes sufficiently separated
- How to board and “deplane” in a safe and timely manner to maintain adequate passenger distance
- How to manage social distancing in airport food and retail stores
- And, perhaps most troubling, whether people will be able to afford to return to the skies in the aftermath of this historic worldwide economic catastrophe.
RDU on Saturday reminded me of the abandoned grand rail terminals of the 1970s and 80s. Some were partially revived, others were repurposed, but for most of the great old train stations, the fall from grace and glory was permanent. Leaving me to ponder whether some airports may not survive this crisis.