Detroit's city airport poised for major upgrades, but no return of passenger 737s

Detroit officials said Thursday that their often-overlooked airport is poised to receive major upgrades and millions in new investment in the near future, although any hope of bringing back commercial airline service is essentially over.

At a news conference outside the Coleman A. Young Municipal Airport on the city's east side, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan announced that the Federal Aviation Administration has approved the first new formal layout plan for the airport in 30 years.

The approval makes the airport eligible for an estimated $100 million in federal grants over the next 10 years, the mayor said, and opens the door for additional private and city investment in things such as new hangars. It also allows for the future closure of the airport's shorter crosswinds runway, a move that will clear up about 80 acres of land for new commercial or industrial development.

Mayor Mike Duggan helps to make an announcement concerning the layout approval for the Coleman A. Young Municipal Airport on Oct. 13, 2022.
Mayor Mike Duggan helps to make an announcement concerning the layout approval for the Coleman A. Young Municipal Airport on Oct. 13, 2022.

However, the plan doesn't envision any return of commercial passenger airline service. Southwest Airlines pulled out of the airport, formerly known as Detroit City Airport, in 1993, and the last airline to have regular service there, Pro Air, stopped operations in 2000.

The main obstacles to passenger service is the short length of the airport's 5,090-foot primary runway, and the fact it is hemmed in by two cemeteries — Mt. Olivet and Gethsemane — precluding necessary runway extensions. Although the runway was able to accommodate Boeing 737s and occasional 727s during the 1990s, those passenger jets could only operate under significant weight restrictions.

Since regular passenger service stopped, the airport has operated solely as a base for corporate jets and small private planes.

“Our first meeting with the FAA went extremely well because when we laid out the plan, they said ‘Thank God, you’re no longer pushing the unrealistic plan for commercial aircraft,' ” Duggan said. “I know people are attached to the idea for having commercial service at this airport, but the fact is, you need a 10,000-foot runway for passenger."

The airport saw more than 100,000 annual takeoffs and landings during the 1990s. Last year, it had about 40,000. Airport Director Jason Watt said Thursday that with the coming improvements and potential future investments, he would like to see the airport back to 100,000 takeoffs and landings a decade from now.

"We could very conceivably get to that number, given all the growth that’s taken place downtown,” Watt said.

Some of that increased air traffic would need to be drawn away from Oakland County International Airport in Waterford.

Detroit now spends $2.7 million a year operate and subsidize the city airport's operations. In the future, Duggan said, he hopes the airport can generate money for the city. Several years ago, the mayor's team had toyed with the idea of closing the airport permanently and redeveloping the 260 acres as an industrial park.

Crosswinds runway closure

The airport's shorter 3,712-foot-long crosswinds runway is now expected to close in the next two to 2½ years, officials said.

The crosswinds runway is used less than 10% of the time, Watt said, and the FAA doesn't believe its closure would pose any safety hazard.

On days when it is necessary, planes could divert to another airport in the region, such as Willow Run Airport near Ypsilanti, he said.

"The FAA would never approve anything that would make the airport unsafe," Watt said.

Duggan said that once the crosswinds runway is removed, it frees up about 80 acres for future development — putting Detroit in the running for more jobs growth opportunities like the new auto supplier plant going up near the airport at the former Cadillac Stamping Plant site.

"Detroit is running out of sites large enough to attract manufacturing facilities," the mayor said. "And with this agreement, we’ve got 80 acres, what will be the prime site in the city, to bring hundreds of jobs to the east side."

'Mini-take' buyouts

To provide a more sufficient safety zone, the city has been negotiating with the owners of 17 occupied houses and 53 vacant properties east of the airport to acquire their properties. The owners in this "mini take" area will start seeing fair-market offers from the city next month.

“I’ve met with them. There is a lot of willingness to sell," Duggan said. "If you’ve been through that neighborhood, it has, through no fault of the neighbors, deteriorated badly over the years. But we have condemned the properties ... and we are making the owners good-faith offers."

Aerospace high school returns

The Davis Aerospace Technical High School, one of the few high schools in the country to offer an aviation curriculum, left the airport in 2013 to go into the Golightly Career and Tech Center. The school is now planning to return to the airport's then-renovated main terminal in 2025.

New control tower

The FAA is fully funding a new air traffic control tower at the airport as part of President Joe Biden's $1.2-trillion Infrastructure and Jobs Act. Site selection for the tower is to begin next year, the city said, with construction expected to be completed in early 2026.

The existing control tower dates to 1973.

“It’s well maintained, but because of just the age of the building, they have a plan to come in and build something new in a better location, and give us maybe some state-of-the-art technology in there," Watt said.

Improved safety zone

The airport plans to install new emergency landing areas at both ends of the main runway, known as an "Engineered Material Arresting System." The system is to compensate for the fact that having cemeteries at both ends of the runway doesn't allow for standard 1,000-foot safety areas for planes that overshoot the runway.

"We’ve got private corporate planes that will not land at this airport because they don’t believe it’s safe enough," Duggan said. "But there will be, as the first project, built at both ends of the runway, essentially crushed gravel."

More hangars

A likely mix of city funding and private investment is expected to finance construction of several new airport hangars, providing space for corporate jets and twin-engine planes, and smaller hangars for single-engine planes.

The airport's existing main hangars are too small for larger corporate jets. Construction of the first batch of new hangars is to begin later this year.

Reactivating fire unit

Shortly before Detroit's 2013-2014 bankruptcy, the city decommissioned Detroit Fire Department Engine 20 at the airport. Last year, the city completed renovations to Engine 20 and now anticipates reactivating the on-site aircraft rescue and firefighting service in the next year or two.

The lack of an on-site fire service has prevented some business aircraft from using the airport because of insurance concerns

Contact JC Reindl at 313-378-5460 or Follow him on Twitter @jcreindl.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit's city airport poised for big upgrades, but no return of 737s