by Kyle Lewis
Government Affairs & Airport Advocacy / Great Lakes Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association
Published in Midwest Flyer – October/November 2020 issue
In early August, AOPA was invited to attend an event at Detroit City Airport (KDET), Detroit, Michigan, hosted by the Detroit City Council and the Mayor’s Office. It was actually a surprise to receive the invitation, given that all had been quiet surrounding the ongoing issues for a number of months. The purpose of the event was to unveil the airport’s to-be-submitted Airport Layout Plan (ALP). To understand why this is an event for fanfare, one must go back in time and see where the airport was, and what had happened over time.
Detroit City Airport, also known as Coleman A. Young International, has a unique history. Operations began in 1927. Early visitors included the likes of Lindbergh and Earhart. Passenger service commenced in 1928 with flights from Detroit to Cleveland, Ohio. As demand grew, Detroit City Airport became one of the four first airports with an RCA air traffic control system. Passenger service also grew with 24 or more scheduled departures per week. By 1946, there were 100 weekly scheduled departures with a multitude of different commercial carriers. After World War II, larger airports were constructed outside of Detroit proper and passenger services transferred to the new facilities.
Mayor Coleman Young was able to attract a commercial operator to KDET in the late 1980s – Southwest Airlines. Southwest operated at the airport until 1993, as runway length limitations impacted the airline. Aside from commercial service, the airport was heavily influenced by general aviation users. The major auto industry players heavily used the airport across its existence and still do, to this day. Over the years, KDET, like other city infrastructures, felt the squeeze of low finances, lack of proper oversight, and neglect. GA tenants left the airport, compliance issues arose, and neighborhoods encroached on the airport land. It sounds like a death sentence for any airport.
There have been rumors and half-handed attempts to close the airport over the last 15 years, but the aviation faithful, including AOPA’s Airport Support Network Volunteer at KDET, Euel Kinsey, have helped sway the tides and bring attention to the importance of the facility. In 2017, Detroit’s current Mayor, Mike Duggan, made it known that an effort to close the airport may be mounted, given the poor state of affairs with the airport. Euel, along with other local airport users, formed the “Coleman A. Young International Airport Education Association.” This association brought together a diverse group of airport users and supporters. Their primary goal was to educate the community and city on the value of the airport.
At several planning and strategy meetings, members of the community voiced support for the airport. Those voices were heard by the city council, and in 2018, a city council-sponsored airport “task force” was created to take a hard look at the airport.
The current airport manager, Jason Watt, was also a cheerleader for the airport and went to work every day knowing the potential the airport had. In short time, it was obvious the valuable role the airport played to the city. There were many concerns — lack of funding, inability to apply for state and federal grants due to the ALP not being updated and current, would the Mayor eventually support the airport? Fast forward to August of 2020, amid the COVID-19 crisis, Mayor Duggan, along with Councilmen Benson and Spivey, held an in-person (socially distanced) event to unveil their plan.
This ALP, while most certainly not perfect, is a big step in a positive direction. The ALP calls for $60-80 million of investment over the next decade and beyond. The Mayor stated he is a supporter and wants the gem of an airport polished in the right light and given an opportunity to reach its potential as a critical city asset. Part of the plan is to extend Runway 15-33, and install an Engineered Materials Arrestor System (EMAS) at each runway end to satisfy FAA runway safety area standards, then tunnel under the extended runway to make way for the reopening of a road connecting two neighborhoods. The plan also may mark an end to the current crosswind runway (7-25). The 3,714-foot runway is not eligible for Airport Improvement Project (AIP) funding based on FAA operational forecasts and wind studies. If the city were to keep that runway without FAA support, significant local dollars would need to be appropriated for rehabilitation of the runway surface, lighting, and taxiways to support the future existence of the runway. That dollar amount would be in the millions, something that is not likely to be supported by the city on its own. The runway would also need to be shortened further for safety zones due to the installation of EMAS on Runway 15-33, minimizing utility even further. As KDET is basically landlocked between neighborhoods and cemeteries, the eventual closure of 7-25 will delegate property to develop and re-develop badly needed general aviation hangars and facilities. Private investment is literally knocking on the door to expand the aeronautical use of the airport.
AOPA is supportive, with cautious optimism, of the ALP that is slated to be submitted in the fall of 2020. It is exciting to see the City of Detroit listening to the community and willing to invest in the airport. AOPA is also very proud of the tedious work the local association did. It was not just talk, action happened, and the credit goes to the members of the Coleman A. Young International Airport Education Association. The submission and approval of the ALP is only a first step in getting the airport back into a healthy, sustainable position for the future. The work of the local association is not done, and ideas to strengthen the airport will be welcome as the process moves forward.
I hope this short story of an airport under fire will show the value of local voices and initiatives.
It is a privilege to serve you!