City Airport's future may not involve flying
Detroit — For the first time in recent history, city officials want to consider the potential of closing Detroit’s troubled municipal airport and converting the land for other uses.
Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration will begin seeking experts Thursday for a study it hopes will change the trajectory of the financially troubled Coleman A. Young Municipal Airport, which hasn’t had regular service from a commercial airline in more than 15 years. And the review isn’t leaving anything off the table.
The city hopes to select consultants by June to analyze financial and infrastructure needs as well as aviation and non-aviation uses for the east side airport that’s been in disrepair and subsidized for years by the city’s general fund.
“You can’t continue with the status quo,” Jed Howbert, executive director of Duggan’s jobs and economy team, told The Detroit News. “We’re going to let the facts lead us where they lead us. Whether it should be aviation — general or commercial — or something else, we need to understand what the options are.”
The last master plan for property commonly known as City Airport was conducted in the early 1990s, but Howbert said this may be the first time Detroit has broadened its scope beyond aviation. The administration, he said, is initiating the study to determine the best use for the airport, with a chief focus on job creation and economic impact.
The airport’s acreage and infrastructure are rare and also have been attractive to companies in automotive and manufacturing sectors, said Justin Robinson, vice president of business attraction for the Detroit Regional Chamber.
“That infrastructure is very expensive to put in place and find elsewhere,” said Robinson, who did not take a position on whether the airport should cease aviation activities. “We’re going to be very interested to see what the city study finds. Whatever it is, we will look to support and drive that vision as well.”
The administration made its case for the detailed airport review during general fund budget hearings last month for the 2017-18 fiscal year, another in which Detroit will help prop it up financially.
The airport is expected to have an operating loss of $1.3 million in the 2017 fiscal year and $885,000 in 2018. It also had operating losses the previous two fiscal years, all paid out of the city’s general fund.
Experts will evaluate the finances and operations of the airport, options for expanded aviation, including commercial service, and the necessary capital upgrades, runway enhancements or repositioning that may be needed to achieve it.
At the same time, the study, which officials expect will be conducted by a team with aviation, real estate and economic development expertise, will examine repurposing the airport for non-aviation uses.
Non-aviation avenues could include industrial development or a mobility park for autonomous air and ground testing, the request for proposals notes.
Howbert said it’s unclear what it would take to rejuvenate the airport. The process, he said, will help the city vet both aviation and nonaviation options, focusing on potential partners, job creation and economic impact. The administration anticipates a final report by the end of the year, he said.
No matter the outcome, any changes proposed for the city-owned and operated airport near Gratiot and Conner would require approval of Detroit’s City Council.
Some have made clear they won’t support shutting down the airport.
“A city the size of Detroit having an international airport within its city boundaries is a rare asset,” said District 3 Councilman Scott Benson, who represents the east side.
Benson said there have been “decades of deferred maintenance” with the airport’s runways and other structures on the property but “that doesn’t mean you just throw it away.”
Benson said the city should keep the airport active and work to attract modern, commercial air companies. The study, he said, will help sort out what destinations and customers could be targeted.
“It would put a smile on my face to see a commercial operator in there next year,” he said.
Council President Pro Tem George Cushingberry Jr. added he favors an expansion of the airport’s main runway and educational programming, including the reopening of the Benjamin O. Davis Aerospace Technical High School on airport grounds.
The school, which offers students a certificated FAA curriculum and flight training, was closed by Detroit Public Schools in 2013 as a cost-saving measure and relocated to another district building.
Expanding the runway would provide the airport with the option of landing larger 737s there.
“Don’t shut it down,” he said. “There’s too much potential.”
Meanwhile, Council President Brenda Jones has questioned the need for the new study, saying past reviews have gotten Detroit nowhere.
“To me, that is wasting taxpayer dollars,” Jones, who also has pushed for commercial service to resume there, argued during the March budget meeting. “It’s also wasting time.”
The administration said $200,000 has been set aside to conduct the request for proposals.
Southwest Airlines began flying in and out of City Airport in 1988, with 13 departures per day from three gates. However, in 1993, when a runway expansion did not materialize, Southwest stopped service, according to city records. The last commercial airline to fly out of City Airport, Pro Air, went bankrupt and left in 2000.
Today, the airport primarily services private jets, general and corporate aviation. City Airport had a total of about 65,000 takeoffs and landings in 2016, according to the Air Traffic Activity Data System.
The city said the total number of landings confirmed by the airport’s control tower is approximately 30 per day.
The 264-acre site has two asphalt runways: a 5,090-foot-long main runway and a crosswind runway of 4,025 feet. To accommodate 737s, the longest runway would need to be 6,400 feet, officials said.
Basil Cherian, a senior policy adviser for the city’s job and economy team, said officials estimate it would cost $150 million to expand the main runway, which would allow 737s to be landed there. A resurfacing of the asphalt runway will be needed and cost about $5 million, he said.
Complicating matters for runway expansion, several cemeteries bookend Detroit’s airport.
Benson noted figures on the projected costs haven’t been verified in years and the study is expected to serve as the deep dive.
There are about 66 full-time public and private employees working at the airport. But for 260-plus acres, said Howbert, it’s not enough.
“That just seems like an asset that’s not doing what it should be for the city,” he said.
The latest plans for the airport come after Duggan administration officials said two years ago they hoped to complete a decades-long effort to acquire homes in a desolate neighborhood just west of the airport that are too close to its runway.
The residential buyout — dubbed the “French Road mini-take” — was approved in 1994 with the intent of creating a federally mandated safety buffer at least 750 feet from the airport’s main runway. The city has about $2.2 million in grant funding available to acquire the remaining properties, but isn’t proceeding with it, officials said.
Adam Williams, manager of airport policy for the Maryland-based Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association, said some smaller cities have reconsidered the value of their airports in recent years, but few the size of Detroit. Most have remained open, he said.
“Detroit has a huge opportunity here having an airport (near) downtown,” said Williams, of the general aviation organization that represents about 350,000 pilots and aircraft owners around the world. “You have to really think about what’s being lost if you either restrict the airport or turn it into something else.”
In Connecticut, officials studied alternative uses for the Hartford-Brainard Airport, concluding in December that it should stay open and see more investment, Williams noted.
More than a decade ago, Williams added, the direction of Cleveland’s Burke Lakefront Airport was debated, but efforts have since been made to invest.
In the last three years, Burke has seen more than $24 million invested in a runway extension, terminal facade and roadway improvements, roof repairs, a ramp overlay and other renovation and replacement work, according to the airport.
Burke has about 630 commercial carrier charter service operations annually. The majority conducted by Ultimate Air Charters flight between Cleveland and Cincinnati, others are mainly sports teams, the airport said.
Passenger volume at Burke in 2016 was 179,927, up from 155,583 passengers in 2014 and 160,381 in 2015, according to figures provided by the airport.
Detroit Airport Director Jason Watt has not returned calls from The Detroit News but has said grant funds for capital upgrades are expected over the next three to five years. The money, if received, will be used for runway rehabilitation, cleaning up conditions at the airport and keeping it safe and efficient.
The city’s current five-year capital improvement plan has shifted from property acquisition to rehabilitating the primary runway. A second phase of the rehabilitation effort is slated to begin this year, according to the Michigan Department of Transportation.
Michael Frezell, a spokesman for MDOT, did not weigh in on plans to evaluate the airport’s future but said state aeronautics officials want the site to be maintained as an airport.
“Our goal is to work with the city, county, or any interested stakeholders in maintaining this airport as we want to continue to see a vibrant air network in Michigan,” he said in an email.
City Airport has accepted federal grant funds for airport purposes and is federally obligated, which would require the FAA to evaluate and approve any request to close. The city has not made such a request, the FAA confirmed.
If moves toward that were made, the city would have to conduct a comprehensive analysis and provide justification for its request for release and closure.
The Friends of Detroit City Airport Community Development Corp. isn’t as open to the non-aviation possibilities.
Beverly Kindle-Walker, a representative of the nonprofit dedicated to promoting City Airport and aviation activities for young people, said she’s wary of the study and hopes it won’t be biased toward closure.
“I am for a fair analysis or study that’s not leaning toward an industrial park,” Kindle-Walker said. “We need City Airport.”
Howbert countered the city has no preconceived notions about the airport’s future.
“We just want to figure out the best way to create opportunity,” he said. “We’ll let those goals guide us.”
About Detroit’s airport
City Airport outsources certain operational functions to Avflight Corporation, a fixed-base operator that leases most of the first-floor Main Terminal Building. Avflight provides fueling, hangaring, tie-downs, arrival guidance and day-to-day maintenance as part of its lease that expires June 30, 2019, according to the city.
The airport has a 53,000-square-foot passenger terminal with space available for restaurants, retail concessions, passenger lounges, ticketing desks and baggage claims.
The site also includes a regional fire training academy, 24-hour Air Traffic Control Tower, Federal Aviation Administration Technical Operations as well as a city-owned aviation fuel farm.
The airport’s executive terminal has 14 hangars. Of those, 10 bays are filled at a rental cost of $2,800 per month. About 70 percent of the airport’s 129 small aircraft hangers are in use and there are about 145 air crafts based on site.
The airport generates revenues from its tenants, private events, rentals and landing fees. Portions of the air field are rented out for autonomous vehicle testing and office space inside the airport terminal.
The site is near the Interstate 94 Industrial Park and kitty-corner from the planned $95 million Flex-N-Gate manufacturing plant, an automotive supply facility expected to create up to 650 new jobs.