Airport terminal celebrates 20 years, serving 90M passengers

Johnston Sun Rise ·

It was 20 years ago and Patti Goldstein remembers the first day of operations at the Bruce Sundlun Terminal like it was yesterday.

The late governor made the terminal “his” project, pushing ahead over the din of skeptics who said Rhode Island would never have the airline passenger traffic to justify a two-level structure, no less pay for it. Sundlun had an ace up his sleeve, however – or maybe he was just dealt a lucky hand. The terminal was not only popular, but with the arrival of Southwest Airlines rapidly required an additional four gates. Not all that long after opening, Green Airport earned the designation of the fastest growing airport in the country.

Goldstein, senior vice president of marketing and communications for the Rhode Island Airport Corporation, along with other members of the RIAC staff, greeted travelers as they cleared security Friday afternoon, 20 years to the date since the terminal opened. They thanked travelers for using Green and in celebration of the occasion handed out cookies made by Sweet Indulgence in Pawtuxet and green luggage tags. Live steel drum music lent a festive flare to the occasion.

There was a lot of hoopla when the terminal opened two decades ago. A black tie affair where dignitaries, representatives of the airlines, and celebrities were handed passports to visit food stations featuring European, Asian, and Western cuisine was held the night prior to the transition from the old to the new terminal. There were toasts and many speeches, as Goldstein recalls. Then there was a community open house, and an estimated 25,000 people came out to see the new facility.

It was a big deal. The new terminal was featured on NBC’s “Today Show” with Willard Scott.

Then the opening was for real. The celebration carried over. Palm trees lined the concourse to the gates. There was music and lots of happy faces.

As flights started arriving, Goldstein said more than one passenger looked completely confused. This wasn’t the airport they left, and they came to the conclusion they had boarded the wrong plane and had landed somewhere else.

In those 20 years, 90 million have passed through the terminal, said Peter Frazier, interim RIAC president and CEO, who was among the ranks of those greeting travelers. Joining him for a brief stint was Mayor Scott Avedisian, who made a point of handing out the cookies with the words “Green Airport” or simply a large “20” in frosting. He didn’t touch the cookies with “PVD.” While located in Warwick, Green is listed as Providence on airline schedules.

There’s no knowing what the next 20 years will bring to Green. The airport and the terminal have seen many changes, including the construction of additional gates, parking garages, a maintenance garage, and the Interlink to a commuter rail station and rental car facility. Passenger traffic has declined from an apex of more than 5.7 million in 2005 and has been inching back since the depths of the recession. And, as the residents of Warwick know, the airport is growing with the lengthening of the main runway to 8,700 feet. That work is to be completed by December 2017.

Apart from the passengers over the last 20 years, Frazier pointed out that the airport has a $1.2 billion economic impact on the state and that it is responsible for 11,500 direct, indirect, and induced jobs.

One thing in Green’s future is rocking chairs in the terminal. There will also be more public art and music, said Goldstein. She’s good at making Green friendly … and she likes a party.

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