Airlines big and small see opportunity in Raleigh-Durham Airport

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Last month, Spirit Airlines announced that it would begin service this spring at Raleigh-Durham Airport, with seven routes.

But that's not the only route news that the airport serving North Carolina's second-largest market has enjoyed since the start of the calendar year. Less than a week before Spirit's announcement, discount competitor Frontier said it would continue its rapid Raleigh-Durham buildup with eight new routes this coming summer.

Not to be outdone, Delta, the airport's largest operator, unveiled two additional Raleigh-Durham routes of its own in the week after the Spirit announcement. 

"The city clearly was underserved," explained Frontier chief commercial officer Daniel Shurz.

Spurred by Frontier, but also aided by a buildup from nearly all of the significant mainline U.S. carriers, the number of scheduled departing seats is 15.7% higher this winter at Raleigh-Durham than it was a year ago, according to airline industry analytics company OAG. That places Raleigh-Durham fourth in growth among the 50 largest U.S. airports over the previous 12 months, behind Nashville and San Jose and Sacramento, Calif. 

The buildup shouldn't come as a surprise. The Raleigh-Durham metro area was the 16th-fastest-growing in the U.S. during the 12 months that ended June 30. Crucially, the area known as the Research Triangle that is anchored by Duke University, North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a strong median household income of $66,000 and an economy that is heavy in relatively recession-proof industries, including health care and higher education, as well as finance and high-tech.

Factors like that are why Delta has doubled its capacity at Raleigh-Durham since 2010 and increased the number of destinations it serves from the market from 10 to 29, said Chuck Imhof, head of sales for the airline's east region. 

Delta's newly announced routes to Pittsburgh and New Orleans, coupled with plans to launch service from Raleigh-Durham to Chicago O'Hare, means that the carrier will fly to 19 of the nation's 25 biggest markets from Raleigh, Imhof said. 

But Delta will be facing increasing competition from ultralow-cost carriers. 

"What was missing the most in the [Raleigh] market is that they didn't have a lot of low-cost service," Frontier's Shurz said. 

Spirit is concentrating its Raleigh-Durham launch on major U.S. markets, with its seven routes this summer going to Baltimore, Chicago O'Hare, Detroit, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and New Orleans. The carrier will compete against at least two airlines on each of those routes and will compete against Delta on six of them.

Frontier, meanwhile, launched service at Raleigh-Durham in 2017 with just five routes. That jumped to 21 routes last summer and will reach 31 routes this summer. 

Northeastern destinations are Frontier's largest focus from Raleigh-Durham, but the carrier also offers flights to other markets, including the notable launch of international service this winter with routes to Cancun; Montego Bay, Jamaica; and Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. 

Shurz said Frontier noted the success of American Airlines on a wide variety of routes to the Caribbean and the Americas from its nearby Charlotte hub. Many of those American flyers are connecting through Charlotte, but the local-origin market from Charlotte is also relatively sizeable, according to Shurz.

"If there's a market from Charlotte, there's no reason there shouldn't be a market from Raleigh," he said. He added that he's confident some Raleigh-Durham area residents have been making the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Charlotte to take those nonstop Caribbean flights.

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