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"Detroit struggles to lift City Airport off ground"

Wednesday, August 4, 2004

Detroit struggles to lift City Airport off ground
Attracting commercial airline is chief goal
By Natalie Y. Moore
The Detroit (MI) News

DETROIT - For years, Detroit City Airport fueled expectations of
igniting economic growth on the city's east side, and, for years,
residents have waited. 

Commercial airlines have flown in and out. Investment has waxed and
waned. And two years ago, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick ordered the airport on
Connor Avenue be fixed or shut down. 

Today only cargo, business jets and private planes use the airport. One
hangar is used by a program that teaches golf. The area surrounding the
airport is riddled with blight. 

But the city hasn't given up on the airport near Interstate 94, just
minutes from downtown. In fact, it will spend $2 million during the next
year on improvements, quadrupling the money invested in the airport
during the fiscal year that just ended. 

New hangars and better streetscaping, lighting and parking are planned.
Within six months, renovations will be under way on the airport
conference center. These changes will be made with one key objective:
luring a commercial carrier and steering toward future expansion. 

An estimated 40,000 passengers from private aircraft use the airport
yearly. Airport officials also are in the early stages of hunting for
food services or restaurants to come on site. 

Sentiment is mixed on the impact those changes will have for an airport
that has seen much better times. 

Pat Bosch lives a mile and a half north of the airport. She is opposed
to expansion. 

"It's haunting because the city has accommodated the airport with some
pretty heavy-duty social economic decisions that have impacted the
surrounding neighborhoods. The city has always touted the expansion as a
way to bring in other businesses. It's just not done," Bosch said. 

Colorado-based aviation expert Michael Boyd said City Airport could help
Detroit be a boomtown. 

"Detroit City Airport is one of the linchpins in reviving downtown
Detroit. It's as important as the Renaissance Center," he said. Having a
downtown airport is really important. 

"In addition, the area around can be redeveloped with light industry and
training programs. Don't think about what it was - think about what it
can be," said Boyd who has been working with city airport officials. 

Talk has even resurfaced on expanding an existing runway. But in the
interim, airport director Delbert Brown said the airport must make the
other improvements if it hopes to be successful. 

The Federal Aviation Administration said it is anticipating runway
studies from the city - the first in a few weeks - analyzing
cost-effective risks. Realistically, a new runway, first proposed in
1988, would take several years and would cost between $80 million and
$200 million. Metro Airport's new runway, opened three years ago, took
10 years from start to finish. 

Brown said modernization is needed for the 77-year-old City Airport. Its
main runway is about 6,000-feet long. An expansion to about 7,200 feet
could accommodate longer-range jets. 

"It's too soon to say if (we) conceptually support (expanding the
runway). At this point, we'd like to see all reports come before we draw
a decision," said Elizabeth Isham Cory, an FAA spokeswoman. 

Since 1975, 11 airlines have offered passenger service at City Airport,
but most left because of the lack of passengers. And through the
decades, former mayors have tried to lock in financial support for a
runway expansion in hopes of bringing passenger service back. 

The last commercial carrier, Pro Air, filed for bankruptcy protection in
2000 after the FAA found safety concerns. The move thwarted plans for
cheap fares for major Metro Detroit companies, many of which had lent
the airline money for operations. 

A spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines, which flew out of City Airport in
the 1990s, said new changes would not make a difference. 

"We're happy with our operations at Metro (Airport) so we're not in the
market for a new airport," Brandy King said. 

However, Terry Trippler, a travel expert and analyst with sidestep.com
in Minneapolis, said improvements could entice commercial business, but
the airport would only be able to siphon off a little of the region's

"I think expanding the runway would attract some business travelers,"
Trippler said. "They're never going to compete with Metro Airport, but I
can see a case where, City Airport would attract point-to-point commuter

"If, say, someone from Chicago has a quick meeting in a city east of
Detroit - somewhere like Roseville or even in downtown Detroit - it
would probably be more convenient if they had an alternative to Metro
Airport. Metro is so far away from the city, it would really help to
have another option a little closer." 

General Motors Corp. does not use the city facility, but is open to the
possibility of passenger carrier service. 

"If commercial service started to key GM destinations," the alternative
would be attractive, said Kevin Killen, director of employee business

The Detroit City Council fiscal analyst expressed alarm about the
airport's finances this spring during the budget process. The city
general fund covered 80 percent of the budget for the airport, which is
an enterprise agency, meaning it is supposed to be self-sufficient. 

"A sign of a lack of support could sway the FAA not to be as positive
about any development," analyst Irvin Corley Jr. wrote in May. Closing
the airport would result in the city paying the FAA back grants of about
$14 million at taxpayer expense. 

The airport is trying to increase revenue and will charge more for
airport user fees to land and fly to make an extra $30,000 to $40,000
this year. 

Area businesses are hoping for a change in the airport. James Harley
owns a repossession and tow company on Six Mile. 

"If they ever did expand the airport and make it good, I'd love to see
that happen. It hasn't happened. I loved to fly out of City Airport more
than Metro (Airport) any day of the week," Harley said. "If they were
ever able to get City Airport going to its potential, then I'd be happy
to forfeit some of the inconveniences."

City Airport

 53,000 square feet of passenger terminal includes space for
restaurants, retail concessions, car rental facilities, airline offices,
baggage pick-up and claim areas, boarding areas and passenger lounges.

 An average of 225 daily commercial corporate and private flights use
the airport.

 310 aircraft are based at the airport.

 The facility has 1,000 public parking spaces.

Source: Detroit City Airport Web site

Attached Photo's:

Airport director Delbert Brown says upgrades are critical for the
77-year-old city airport to succeed. An expansion of its 6,000-feet-long
main runway to about 7,200 feet could allow longer-range jets.

Evette Booker, 8, practices her swing in a hangar where golf is taught.
Only cargo, business jets and private planes now use the airport near
Interstate 94, just minutes from downtown Detroit.



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