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...

“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.”

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