Passenger traffic takes off at Metro Airport

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News
With the increase in passengers at Detroit Metropolitan Airport come longer wait times to get to the gates. If the travel trend continues this year, the airport could come close to the passenger record set in 2005.

Detroit Metropolitan Airport is on course to reach near-peak levels of passenger traffic this year — growth that pleases airport officials but also causes longer lines during busy hours.

After five years of holding flat at 32 million passengers coming through the airport annually, Metro officials finally saw a jump to 33.4 million in 2015 because of increased competition with Delta Air Lines and more nonstop flights from low-cost carriers.

Passenger travel increased 8 percent for the first two months of the year over last year, airport officials said.

The passenger rush is also the result of major improvements in the Metro Detroit economy, fueled by a boost in the auto industry.

“The American auto industry is all the way back. And I think that is a lot of it. The economy here is definitely humming,” said Joe Cambron, the airport’s director of air service development, who works to attract airlines to compete on routes.

“You drive around today, and they are building new businesses. That’s something we didn’t see in Detroit for a few years. You can see it; you can feel it as you drive around.”

If the increased passenger travel trend continues this year, airport officials say it would come close to the record 36.3 million travelers passing through Metro in 2005.

“The airlines wouldn’t be adding flights if they weren’t doing well here, and they are doing well here because the economy’s doing well here,” Cambron said.

With the increase in passengers come longer wait times to get to the gates and their destinations — albeit not as long as at larger airports around the country, officials say.

Michael McCarthy, a regional spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration, which screens passengers, said the TSA recommends arriving at least two hours early for a domestic flight to “make sure that you are going to make it through the airport in plenty of time and find your gate.”

TSA lists the busiest times at Metro as 6-9 a.m. Metro and TSA officials do not keep gate wait time data for the airport.

“We’re seeing an increase in wait times and recognize that longer-than-normal wait times are a concern, but I don’t think the lines at Detroit are quite what you may have seen reported nationally at some other airports,” McCarthy said.

“There really hasn’t been any significant wait times locally that we’ve seen, but with this increase in passengers, we are anticipating that you could see longer than usually wait times, especially heading into the very busy summer travel season.”

While passenger traffic grew last year, flights taking off and landing from Metro Airport declined for a fifth year because of airline consolidation. Also, bigger planes are being used to carry more passengers on fewer flights, airport officials said. In January and February, however, landings and takeoffs were also up 6.3 percent.

And origin and destination traffic — travelers who live in or are visiting Detroit — is climbing strongly, too. Last year, March, July, August and October had record-high levels of origin and destination passenger traffic.

In 2007, there were 8.8 million origin and destination travelers. Last year was just 200,000 short of that record, but airport officials expect to reach 9 million this year.

One reason the passenger trend is on the rise is because of increased competition.

Delta is a Metro Aiport hub airline whose passenger traffic has been consistently more than 12 million for five years.

Another new nonstop flight on Frontier Airlines was formally announced Friday between Detroit and Phoenix for as low as $99 round trip during off-peak hours on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Spirit and JetBlue airlines have also increased flights out of Metro Airport in the past two years.

Even with that growth, hub airline Delta’s passenger traffic in and out of Metro Airport has been consistently more than 12 million passengers for the past five years, airline officials said.

“Delta’s continued to invest in adding larger aircraft on more of its flights in the Detroit market, and Detroit has continued to respond with strong load factors in the markets that we serve,” said Anthony Black, a spokesman for Delta in Atlanta.

Even travel agencies in the region have seen a spike in business in the past year.

“Personally, (I think) the reasons are people love to travel, and they are making a point to travel,” said Pam Nikitas, owner of Joan Anderson Travel Services in the Buhl Building in downtown Detroit. “Regardless of the Zika virus or terrorist activity, they just enjoy traveling.

“And so I think that has stepped it up a lot. I think the more competition we have, the more we have low-cost carriers coming into Detroit, it mixes up the bag and makes it more reasonable for people to travel.”

Nikitas said her business increased 15 percent last year because of the uptick in passengers and about 8 to 10 percent this year. Increased competition with Delta, she said, helped bring “down costs of the other carriers, which have made it more attractive” to fliers.

“I hope it still continues, but in the travel business, you never know,” she said of more passengers flying.

Michael Supe, a native German who now lives in Tennessee and works for an automotive parts business that caters to Detroit, said he’s not at all surprised by the increase in passenger traffic at Metro because he has noticed it himself.

Michael Supe of Tennessee waits at the airport last week. “I’ve seen much more passengers than I’ve seen in the past,” he said.

“At the end of 2014 and consistently in 2015, it was consistently growing,” said Supe, as he waited outside the Delta terminal after arriving at Metro last week. “I’ve seen much more passengers than I’ve seen in the past. I travel a lot, and my assumption is that this is 90 percent business-related. The economy has improved and, therefore, business passengers are coming along.”

But others such as Debbie and Dave Schmidt of Livonia, who were traveling last week to Denver to see their grandchild, say even occasional fliers like themselves are starting to see more enticing flight deals.

The Schmidts said they are planning more trips this year, including one to Disney World in Florida.

“I think people are definitely flying more,” Debbie Schmidt said as they prepared to go through security for their Delta flight through the McNamara Terminal. “I definitely search for good prices and I find really good deals. And I think there are great deals right now.”