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RDU's renovated Terminal 1 replaces the old blue box

By Bruce Siceloff of the News & Oserver

Remember everything you hated about the old blue-box Terminal 1 at Raleigh-Durham International Airport? Now you can forget it.

Terminal 1 was dim and drafty, cramped and bewildering. When you walked off your plane and onto the chaotic concourse, it was hard to find the door that took you downstairs and into the arms of your loved ones.

Not any more. RDU has given the old building a thorough makeover. The renovated Terminal 1, which will reopen March 2, is more open and airy. It features a saner layout and plenty of natural light.

After an effort that took three years and cost $68 million, the renovated Terminal 1 will provide roomier quarters for its sole airline tenant, Southwest. Airport officials say it also will provide a more relaxed experience for about 2.2 million RDU passengers who fly Southwest and its AirTran subsidiary each year.

The new 166,000-square-foot terminal will become the last remaining section of a long, tortuous building that was built in pieces over the past six decades on the east side of RDU.

“This building has deep roots in our community,” RDU spokesman Andrew Sawyer told reporters during a Terminal 1 tour Wednesday. “Over the decades we have renovated, re-imagined, added on, taken away – done just about everything you can do to this building to serve the needs of the community over time.”

The north end of the building, which includes RDU’s first permanent terminal built in 1955, now houses Southwest Airlines. The south end, built in 2001 to provide more airline gates, has been padlocked since 2011.

Both ends of the building will be demolished next year. The renovated central section of Terminal 1 will be all that remains.

RDU has replaced everything but the steel skeleton of a spruce-blue box that was built in 1982 and originally called Terminal A. It was the crowded home of nearly all the airport’s airlines for more than 25 years, until the $570 million Terminal 2 opened in phases in 2008 and 2011.

Terminal 1 picks up some of the visual cues and design virtues of Terminal 2 – but without the newer building’s dramatic spaces, warm colors and undulating roofline. It mirrors the canopied street entrance of Terminal 2, although many travelers will enter Terminal 1 as they did in the old days, through an escalator tunnel from the parking garage.

Steel facade panels that shaded the ground floor have been replaced with translucent panels that pour daylight into the ticketing hall and baggage claim room. In the passenger concourse upstairs, the windows are bigger, and some rooms have higher ceilings than before.

The building colors are mostly shades of gray, with bits of red and blue in the concourse carpet. A visual centerpiece on the ground floor is an artwork entitled “Metamorphosis” – tall glass panels with layered, bold-color images of nature, people and Tar Heel place names.

Southwest will operate five passenger gates. Four more gates are set aside for growth.

Southwest has been one of RDU’s major carriers since it arrived in 1999, but it was constrained in its space at the old northern end of Terminal 1. The renovated building will give the airline new prominence.

“We’ve been working with the airport over the last several years on this project,” Southwest spokesman Dan Landson said by phone from Dallas. “We think it’s a great space. We look forward to moving in and starting our operations from there.”

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AirTran still operates a handful of flights to Atlanta and Orlando, but the former discount airline’s name will disappear by the end of 2014 as the takeover by Southwest becomes complete, Landson said.

The Transportation Security Administration checkpoint is upstairs, with four lanes for departing travelers. Arriving passengers should not have difficulty finding their way downstairs. They’ll walk past a sweeping view of the runway – with blue-white-and-red Southwest jets landing and taking off – on their way to the escalators.

Along with Raleigh’s Char-Grill and a couple of Starbucks shops, Terminal 1 diners will be able to choose among Salsarita’s Fresh Cantina, La Tapenade Mediterranean Cafe, and the ACC American Cafe – the first eatery licensed by the Atlantic Coast Conference. The menu is supposed to echo the ACC’s far-flung geography, from Miami ceviche to Boston clam chowder, with Maryland crabcakes in what might be a limited engagement. Maryland is leaving the ACC for the Big Ten league.

Shoppers will find women’s fashion and accessories at Marshall Rousso and Ruby Blue, books and convenience items at two Flight Stop shops, and electronic gear at Techshowcase.

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