Appeared as part of the sponsored section First in Flight in the February issue of Business North Carolina
By Kathy Blake
The world is as close as an airline ticket thanks to nearly 40 direct international flights from Charlotte Douglas and Raleigh-Durham airports combined. But there’s more to North Carolina’s two largest international airports than instant access to the globe. In Charlotte and the Triangle, airport property means jobs, economic growth and connections to foreign interests in trade, travel and business.
“Our economic impact is $8.5 billion every year,” says Kristie Van Auken, RDU’s vice president of communications and community affairs. “We contribute 20,000 jobs. This is a significant economic driver. Being an international gateway is huge. There are only two in the state, and the value of that cannot be overstated.”
Charlotte Douglas offers flights to 34 international destinations and logged 544,000 takeoffs and landings in 2015 alone. It’s the second-busiest hub behind Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport for American Airlines, the nation’s largest airline. Rapid growth and demand drives Destination CLT, a 10-year, $2.5 billion expansion project that will bring a 12,000-foot runway able to accommodate nonstop flights to Asia and 40-plus new gates by 2026. Charlotte Douglas is also one of the city’s largest landowners, with 6,000 acres bordered by Interstates 85 and 485, Shopton Road and Billy Graham Parkway, some of which is slated for development.
RDU has an eye to the future with Vision 2040, a plan that calls for more than $2.7 billion in improvements, including a new runway for international flights. The 10,000-foot runway, which could be extended to 11,500 feet, would make possible a dream for RDU: a direct flight to China, which expects to replace the U.S. as the world’s busiest aviation market in the next two decades. A symposium to lay the groundwork for recruiting flight service to China is set for this month. An influx of Chinese tourists to North Carolina could translate into big dollars: Visit North Carolina estimates that Chinese and Hong Kong tourists spend an average of $736 per person, compared with Canadian tourists who spend $244 each while visiting the state.
RDU’s direct flights to London and Paris have already paid dividends — the United Kingdom Consulate opened a trade office last year in Raleigh to connect British and North Carolina companies specializing in technology, manufacturing and life sciences. Other new trade offices are in San Diego and Minneapolis.
“RDU is experiencing tremendous growth,” says Andrew Sawyer, the airport’s corporate communications coordinator. “Vision 2040 also calls for expansion and reconfiguration of Terminal 2 as volume, need and demand warrant. It puts the framework in place to expand the terminal to up to 23 new gates through the life of the master plan. Finally, we are in the early phases of building a consolidated rental car facility to add more convenience for our partners and offer a better customer experience.”
Charlotte Douglas accounts for an annual economic impact of $16.2 billion, according to a study conducted by UNC Charlotte’s Center for Transportation Policy Studies, a 67% increase from $9.7 billion in 2005. The study, which includes direct and indirect economic impacts, also notes that airport activities and operations support 224,400 regional jobs, more than double the 100,716 jobs a decade ago.
“Our vision for Charlotte is that we are an economic engine for the Carolinas,” says Stuart Hair, the airport’s economic affairs manager, “and we do that through facilitating the movement of people and goods. We want to create jobs and enterprise, and the tactic to do that is through the airport.”
Leveraging available land around the airport will play a key role, Hair says. It’s an attractive spot for cargo facilities, data centers and research-and-developments labs. Project AMP, or Airport Master Plan, is designed to put unused land in a 25-square-mile area around the airport to its highest and best uses. “There’s going to be a lot of companies that want to be located near the airport, and they don’t all want to be at our front door,” Hair says. “They’re going 15, 20 minutes away into Belmont and Mount Holly.”
Planned projects at the airport’s “front door” on Wilkinson Boulevard leading to downtown Charlotte include a 400-room hotel, global business center and innovation campus plus “destination entertainment” such as an auto experience center and track, and a commercial center with dining, entertainment and other retail.
On the airport’s south side, Hair says, “there’s already a huge interest in industrial development. About 168 acres is being rezoned from residential to industrial use. It’s changing dramatically. This has all been driven by the private market. We’re responding to the private market interests in how we use our land.”
North Carolina’s 72 general aviation airports have an annual economic impact of more than $31 billion and support more than 123,000 jobs. Who knows? World-class airports could be the tipping point for Amazon as it considers North Carolina for its so-called HQ2, not to mention a new campus for Apple Inc. It’s a good thing the state has its share.