The Triangle's airport has developed a dynamic relationship with the region's businesses, universities and governments.
Today, tomorrow will come early for Keith Morris. Its morning in Garner, southeast of Raleigh, and, as he does once or twice a year, the executive is packing for a 16-hour flight across the international date line and on to Japan.
In the automobile plants of Osaka - just as in Detroit, where his Northwest Airlines flight will make its only stop on the way - car makers depend on robots. The 22 engineers and technicians of ATI Industrial Automation Inc., where Morris is general manager, make sensors and other components for manufacturers.
By the time Morris finds himself on Interstate 40 approaching the airport, nurse Judy Tysmans is seeing patients at a clinic in the sprawling Duke University Medical Center in Durham. She, too, is preparing for travel.
"It's a high-risk environment," Tysmans, director of Duke's International Travel Clinic, explains to graduate students as she immunizes them for an overseas research trip. Soon they will make their way to Raleigh-Durham International Airport, where they will fly to destinations such as the Congo, Senegal and Mongolia. In doing so, they all become part of a unique partnership of airport and community.
"The riddle of RDU," Keith Debbage, a UNC Greensboro professor who studies airports, calls it. Like most riddles, it's hard to define. But unravel it, and at its center is a dynamic relationship between the airport and the businesses, universities and governments of the region that sets it apart not only from airports elsewhere in the country but even from its cross-state counterpart, Charlotte/Douglas International Airport.
In dollars and cents, RDU creates a $2 billion economic impact that ripples out through the Triangle each year. And although more than three times as many passengers pass through the Charlotte airport, the roughly 6.1 million who begin and end flights at RDU rivals the number in Charlotte.
"The propensity to fly is among the highest in the nation," Debbage says. "You have unusually high per capita income, three nationally known research universities, the Research Triangle Park growth factor and a labor pool that's astonishingly high-skilled."
The outcome? Of the total 6.7 million passengers last year, nine out of 10 were local, coming and going on 220 flights a day. Fully 60% are business fliers. Those are the numbers. But the real meaning? For an example, turn to a business park in Morrisville, south of the airport, where two decades ago cows grazed and farmers tended tobacco.
"This is a growing area," says A.J. Stillittano, operations coordinator of ITX-change Inc., a factory-authorized seller of surplus IBM...