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 action. "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 business. "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 travel. 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.