Detroit bankruptcy plan calls for revitalizing Detroit city airport

Detroit Free Press (MI), 2014-04-04

April 04 -- Detroit's aging city airport could gain new life and again provide passenger service if a plan is approved to spend millions on a terminal, Jetway for passengers and major upgrades.

The $28.5 million earmarked in Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr's restructuring plan would also set aside money for a study of the airport's role in its east-side neighborhood. The area near Conner and Gratiot and along French Road has persistently high crime and poverty.

"I look at Detroit city airport and think it is a jewel that nobody's polished," said Michael Boyd , an aviation consultant and president of Colorado -based Boyd Group International . "Our idea is that it could be the thing that revitalizes that entire area. The airport has huge value both as a facility and also in terms of revitalizing that whole area of Detroit ."

The money would come from the city's anticipated bankruptcy settlement. Like other recommended investments in Orr's plan of adjustment, including $520.3 million for blight removal, the airport investment would take place over the next several years as savings become available from settlements with creditors.

The city's general fund has subsidized the airport in recent years because its revenues "have fallen far short of expenses," Orr's plan says. In 2013, the city's general fund contributed $300,000 to fund the airport's operations. That contribution increased to $600,000 in 2014.

The facility -- officially the Coleman A. Young International Airport -- may soon get some of the new partnerships it needs. Officials are talking to two unidentified start-up regional carriers about providing scheduled passenger service, airport manager Jason Watt told the Free Press on Thursday. The planes would carry perhaps 75 to 100 passengers, providing flights to destinations such as Chicago , Boston and New York .

As recently as the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of passengers a year traveled through the airport on Southwest Airlines and Pro Air . But Southwest pulled out in the '90s, and Pro Air closed in 2000 in a dispute with federal regulators.

Since then, the facility, formerly Detroit City Airport , has operated solely as a base for corporate jets and small private planes. It remains a busy hub for those flights, with about 80,000 a year, but Watt said the airport could handle much more.

"We are still an underutilized airport. We're nowhere near capacity, not even close," he said in an interview at the airport.

Out of date

Watt said the airport needs a lot of new investment. The T-hangars, which cater to smaller private planes, are decades out of date and underutilized.

"The facilities are just old. They're very difficult to maintain," Watt said.

About $20.7 million of the new investment would pay for upgrades to hangars for general aviation, upgrades to the airport's 53,000-square-foot passenger terminal, and a new Jetway to let passengers board larger planes. Another $6.5 million would go for personnel costs including training and benefits, and about $1.4 million would go for new maintenance, security and the master plan.

Experts interviewed by the Free Press agreed the airport could be great again, as it was decades ago, provided its gets the new investment it needs.

The upgrades foreseen in Orr's plan do not include a runway extension or a new runway, something that some outside critics have long maintained the airport needs. The airport's main runway, known as 15/33, is about 5,100 feet long, and some aviation experts believe the airport needs a runway of from 6,000 to 7,000 feet to accommodate the sort of jets carriers like Southwest use on their routes, such as Boeing 737s.

In November 2012 , Orr noted, a consultant prepared a 10-year capital improvement program for the airport, which included several rehabilitation plans, ranging from $55 million for upgrades other than runways to a $273-million plan that included a new runway paid for in part by federal grants.

In his plan, Orr said the city would explore a possible sale or lease of the airport but would continue to subsidize and operate the airport until a viable transaction was found. As Watt and other experts said, a sale is highly unlikely because it would trigger a requirement that Detroit repay the Federal Aviation Administration for airport funds previously received, a figure Watt said could run from $25 million to $50 million .

Huge potential

Located on 263 acres in one of the most depleted districts of Detroit , the airport retains huge potential. A 2011 study by University of Michigan planning students found that 60% of the region's population lived closer to Coleman A. Young Airport than to Detroit Metro Airport . The east-side airport is a 10-minute drive to downtown Detroit and is close to expressways and rail lines.

The 100-page U-M study, titled "Preparing for Takeoff," suggested that instead of extending the existing 5,100-foot runway, which would require relocating a portion of a cemetery just outside the airport, a new longer runway might be built 750 feet to the west, which would not require a relocation of graves. Watt said the idea makes sense, although it is unlikely a new runway is in the airport's near future.

The U-M study also suggested the airport make relatively simple changes like creating a better website and providing shuttle service for pilots and crews to downtown hotels.

The U-M study noted several obstacles to the airport's growth beyond a shortage of cash. A previous fixed-base operation, the company that handles private and corporate planes, did not perform well and earned the airport a reputation of high costs and poor service. A new fixed-based operator has improved service, Watt said.

In addition, some pilots considered the neighborhood unsafe and hesitated to fly or store their planes there. In the past, some travelers cited insufficient parking for large numbers of cars. There is also competition from other regional airports, which besides Metro and Willow Run airports include Oakland County International and Bishop International in Flint .

Despite those obstacles, Watt and other advocates for Coleman A. Young Airport believe new investment and a new regional carrier or two can help the airport return to greatness.

"The end goal to all of this is to turn the airport into a destination where people would like to come and benefit from all the wonderful things that are happening downtown," Watt said. "Our location is second to none."

Contact John Gallagher : 313-222-5173 or . Follow him on Twitter @jgallagherfreep.


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