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"Detroit's McNamara Terminal opens for business"
Saturday, February 23, 2002
Detroit's McNamara Terminal opens for business
By JIM IRWIN
The Associated Press
ROMULUS, Mich. (AP) -- Empty express trams have whisked along their
near-mile-long route. Five miles of conveyor belts have shuttled 7,000
pieces of luggage bought just for the trial runs. The Pewabic tiles
outside the restrooms have been polished to a silvery sheen.
The dress rehearsals for the Edward H. McNamara Terminal at Northwest
WorldGateway were among the final preparations for Sunday's opening.
Officials with Northwest Airlines and Wayne County are hoping the new
terminal will win over a public long leery of using an outdated Detroit
"They wanted this to be the absolute best airport for customer service
in the United States," said architect David R.H. King, who designed the
near-mile-long building more commonly known as the Midfield Terminal.
Metro is Northwest's largest hub; the airline handles more than 75
percent of all passengers at the airport. McNamara will be used by
Northwest, Northwest Airlink, Continental Airlines and KLM Royal Dutch
Airlines. Davey Terminal, which Northwest is vacating, will be renovated
and used by other domestic airlines now in the 44-year-old L.C. Smith
Terminal, which will be demolished.
>From the terrazzo floors to the 36-foot-high ceiling over the 106 ticket
counters, McNamara has dozens of amenities and design touches setting it
apart from the rest of the airport, where passenger traffic doubled from
1986 to 2000 at terminals built in stages from 1956 to 1974.
At the new terminal, passengers will be able to grab a bite or shop at
the nearly 85 restaurants and retail outlets -- a far cry from the
limited selections at the old terminal.
If Detroit is their final destination, they'll pluck their bags from one
of 11 luggage carousels for domestic passengers, compared with four at
If they're among the more than 70 percent of passengers who stop at
Metro only to catch a connecting flight, they can hop aboard one of two
Express Trams -- essentially a sideways-moving elevator -- and ride at
speeds of up to 30 mph to their next gate.
Each tram can carry up to 4,000 passengers an hour and can travel from
one end of Concourse A to the other in 2 1/2 minutes. For shorter trips
between gates, there are 1 1/2 miles of moving walkways with flight
information, restrooms, restaurants and retail outlets at the end of
"This will be as simple, as foolproof, a
follow-the-heels-of-the-person-in-front-of-you experience as you can
possibly create," King said.
Some industry analysts say McNamara's $1.2-billion price tag is
Northwest's down payment on winning back the customer goodwill that was
eroded over many years at Metro, which is uncomfortably cramped and
"It's going to be certainly a dramatic, dramatic change," said Kevin
Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, a lobbying group
for major buyers of business travel services such as Ford Motor Co. and
"We're talking about going from the last rung on the ladder to somewhere
near the top in terms of functionality, and that's going to be quite an
experience for travelers," Mitchell said. "The thing that works against
the new airport is Northwest's reputation ... in a traveler's mind,
Northwest is going to have to overcome that image that it's not a
particularly consumer-friendly airline."
Northwest doesn't deny that its image has been tarnished in Detroit.
Indeed, a page on its media-only Web site is divided into three columns:
category of passenger; "hassle" at Metro; and "solution" at McNamara.
"The starting point was incredibly grim," architect King said of the
task facing him and his firm, SmithGroup Inc. of Detroit. "We started on
this project about five years ago, when Northwest's PR was at its nadir.
"Right now it looks like it will be accepted and well received."
The terminal is named for Ed McNamara, the Wayne County executive who
has spent 15 years working to expand the county-owned airport, and
Northwest, which is leasing almost all of the new terminal.
While few would argue that the new terminal has been long overdue, its
ability to handle its capacity of 30 million Northwest and Airlink
commuter service passengers annually won't be fully tested for years, in
part because of Sept. 11.
More than five months after the terrorist hijackings, 20 percent of
major airlines' planes are still out of service, Mitchell said.
"Business travel fell off the cliff in 2001. It was going down at the
worst rate in commercial aircraft history, and that was before 9-11," he
Sept. 11 also prompted some last-minute tweaking to McNamara security
that pushed back the opening date from late December. The number of
security checkpoints was expanded from 16 to 21 after the attacks, and
will reach 23 when an adjoining 404-room Westin Hotel opens later this
The government banned curbside baggage check-in at existing Metro
terminals after the attacks, raising concerns that automatic check-in
hardware in McNamara's 11,500-space parking deck would never be used.
The ban was lifted two weeks after the attacks and automatic check-in --
part of a luggage system that also includes 42 3-dimensional imaging
machines designed to detect explosives -- is back on line.
"They were getting ready for next-generation security when they were
building (McNamara) anyhow," said Bob Jones, an industry analyst with
OneTravel.com in Grand Rapids. "There aren't a whole lot of changes that
have to be made. They're really ahead of the curve and didn't recognize
"A lot of the things that have been mandated, they can say, `Yeah, we've
But it's the things that aren't mandated that Northwest and Wayne County
are banking on to make the McNamara experience pleasurable, or at least
Just past the security checkpoint, there's a black granite fountain, 39
feet in diameter, with jets of water representing airplanes hopping from
one point on the globe to another. A 900-foot-long tunnel connects
Concourse A with the 33-gate Concourse B with fabric walls and ceilings
aglow with synchronized lights and New Age music commissioned for the
"We have a bet to see which is going to be the bigger draw," King said.
The four Northwest WorldClubs are trimmed in cherry wood and offer
leather chairs and tables hard-wired with electrical outlets and
telephone jacks. The counter tops are granite, as are those in the
On a more practical level are the 475 restroom stalls, twice the number
required for a building of McNamara's size, each of them six feet deep
-- roomy enough to keep baggage close by.
A 5.5-acre baggage handling, customs and immigration facility is just
downstairs from the gates. It can process 3,200 international passengers
per hour, the equivalent of eight 747s.
Too few gates at its existing terminals prevented Northwest from
expanding service to some U.S. cities and some important international
destinations, such as Tokyo. It also was forced to lengthen connection
times on domestic and international flights.
"The international travelers are going to see a situation that's much
improved from what it is now ... (at) that little international
terminal," King said.
Ray Neidl of ABN Amro Inc. echoed other industry analysts in predicting
that McNamara could help Northwest and Metro cut into other carriers'
business at other airports.
The new facility "should make them more efficient. That should give them
something to advertise about," Neidl said from his New York office. "You
people in Detroit should be very excited.
"Of course, Northwest still has to provide good service -- on-time,
King, who devoted 18 months to the project, said McNamara will be the
takeoff point for better times for Northwest and Metro.
"We are sending a huge message that things have changed."
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