An Anchor For An Aerotropolis

YPSILANTI, MI — Willow Run Airport (YIP) straddles the Michigan counties of Wayne and Washtenaw and is located seven miles west of Detroit Metropolitan Airport; both airports are operated by the Wayne County Airport Authority.

Built by Henry Ford during World War II, the Ford Motor Company once produced B-24 bombers for the U.S. Government here. After the war ended, Willow Run became Detroit’s primary passenger service airport; today, operations look very different.

The airport sits on some 2,600 acres and now serves cargo, corporate, and general aviation clientele; there is no longer commercial passenger service due to a specific agreement with Metro’s signatory carriers that ensures the airports don’t compete for that service.

Airport director of three years David DiMaria says fuel is up some 60 percent here, and cargo some 70 percent. “For the most part, our operators here weathered a very tough storm in 2009,” he relates. “We were glad to see that they were really trying to diversify what they were doing as much as they could; it kept them afloat.”

The airport’s FBOs, Active Aero and Avflight, report that business is doing well currently, however the full potential of the airport has yet to be realized. A longer runway is needed to support larger aircraft, and the airport is still considered primarily ‘domestic.’

A larger concept

With such strong ties to a struggling auto industry, DiMaria says operators have ramped up corporate charter activity to mitigate the effects of the recession, and the ebbs and flows of auto production.

There is excitement for the future here, and much of it involves the ‘aerotropolis’ concept. Still an air transport model that is prevalent in the international community, the aerotropolis serves to place airports in the center of an urban development model with cities growing around them, “ ... connecting workers, suppliers, executives, and goods to the global marketplace,” states John Kasarda’s aerotroplis.com (for more on John Kasarda and the ‘aerotropolis’ concept, refer to this issue’s cover story).

The Detroit Region Aerotropolis Development Corporation is a separate entity from the airports; Metro Airport and Willow Run serve as the anchors on either side of the proposed aerotropolis site, explains DiMaria.

“The concept is to develop the land in and around the airports,” he says. “The airports aren’t necessarily the economic driver … they play a role in drawing business into the area.

“We serve as that western anchor of the aerotropolis; to what extent we can bring business in or facilitate business in the area … that’s our role within the development corporation.”

The corporation is currently developing its ‘communications’ plan, relates DiMaria. The state of Michigan passed legislation last December that allows for enterprise tax-free zones within the aerotropolis. Part of the difficulty is now that the state has changed governors, there’s a different focus on how to incentivize businesses to come into the area, he adds.

Comments Avflight president Carl Muhs, “Our biggest challenge in Michigan, certainly in the greater Detroit area, is the development of the aerotropolis.

“It’s a process that has to move forward fairly soon; I think you’re going to find a number of communities around the country looking to do the exact same thing. I think what we have available that most don’t is affordable land, and two airports that are very close to each other.”

Information on the Detroit Region Aerotropolis can be found at: www.detroitregionaerotropolis.com.

Cargo success

Remarks DiMaria, “Due to the recession, a lot of the lifting capacity in the cargo industry has shrunk; the companies that couldn’t make it aren’t there anymore. Some of our operators are benefiting from that.”

Customs operates here Monday through Friday, 24-hours; almost all flights handled by Customs are from Canada and less than 5 percent are from Mexico. According to DiMaria, everything here is pretty much on-demand cargo, “The operators run whenever they have to.

“Now that the economy is coming back, people are looking to move freight and parts, and there just aren’t as many aircraft out there doing it; companies are operating pretty lean right now.”

VP, administration and corporate council for Active Aero Group Donald McNeff confirms cargo activity is up. Active Aero Group is the parent company of FBO on the field Active Aero Services, as well as corporate charter companies Active Aero Charter and USA Jet Airlines.

“If we went back and looked at our trip counts, I would say the day the Cash-For-Clunkers program began, the company really started to turn things around,” says McNeff.

“The program ate up all of the capacity, all of the inventory … so companies had to restock. About the same time, I think people are starting to feel comfortable enough to buy cars again. The auto industry has been trending up; market share has been up for grabs.”

However, adds McNeff, “The airport is underutilized, both for GA and commercially; a lot of that has to do with the infrastructure. Runway length is a huge issue; it’s 2,500-feet too short for a fully-loaded 747 to take off.”

Avflight’s Muhs agrees, “My concern is we are still operating a ‘domestic’ airport for the most part. With the runway configurations, and the length of the runway we operate from; we are still a domestic airport.

“I think for us to be successful in attracting the kinds of business that we need long-term, that [runway] expansion has to happen.”

In the meantime, Muhs says the increase in both fuel and cargo can be attributed to a number of things. “We are starting to see some corporate activity that had slowed down for a period of time,” he explains.

“We are definitely seeing an uptick in cargo … and not just the cargo we handle and work with ourselves, but some of the other folks on the field are seeing real signs of life as well.”

Over the last few years, because cargo has slowed down so dramatically, the mix was 70/30 charter activity versus cargo, but it’s probably closer to a 50/50 mix currently, says Muhs.

He comments, “We’ve seen a number of cargo operators here move into the passenger transport business.

“We’ve worked really hard throughout the years to attract the corporate operator that’s coming into Ann Arbor and Metropolitan Detroit.”

Avflight’s established network of FBOs also includes locations at Saginaw (MBS), Lansing (LAN), Flint (FNT), Harrisburg, PA (MDT), and Durango, CO (DRO).

Corporate activity

There are 260 aircraft based here — some 100 are jet, 100 are single-engine, and the rest are multi-engine and helicopters, says DiMaria. “We are seeing a significant increase in charter operations,” he relates. “We are really seeing that corporate business climb.”

Active Aero Group’s USA Jet is a charter airline that began operating on the field six years ago. Says McNeff, “We needed to try to escape the peaks and valleys of the auto industry, which is extreme in the cargo charter business.

“What we found was that if we converted some of our cargo DC-9s back into passenger jets … we may be able to connect with a broker that had a relationship with the NCAA, and start doing some college basketball business.”

The company began by converting two DC-9s into a 50-seat business class configuration. USA Jet now has a passenger fleet of seven: two Baby 9s; three stretched DC-9s; and two MD80s.

“The passenger business has been great for us; it’s gone from just filling that gap to a venture on its own,” explains McNeff. The company has flown college and professional hockey teams, college baseball teams, and the Irish band U2. It also recently utilized every passenger plane in the fleet every day during NCAA’s March Madness this year.

Avflight, which operates two locations on the field, has been at Willow Run since 1997. Says Muhs, “If you look at our core business, it’s really from about a 350-500 mile radius of the airport; a lot of our business is very local, and a lot is driven by the Big Three [automakers], but we are seeing more diversification in that business as well.”

The most pressing issue for the airport currently is right-sizing, relates DiMaria. “We’re in the middle of conducting and land-use study and a market analysis to determine the infrastructure we need to bring in new business, and to determine what we see as the future — is it going to be more international freight? Are we going to need a longer runway? Or do we need to be looking more in the regional direction? Or to the needs of corporate aviation?”

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