Cargo keeps airport aloft Freight traffic, corporate aviation make Willow Run a key player in local economy

News Business Reporter

Willow Run Airport may lose more than half its passengers next year when Pfizer Inc. closes its Ann Arbor facilities.

But the five-runway airport in western Wayne County probably won't notice the change much. With cargo planes making up the majority of its operations, things will continue to hum at Willow Run.

Transporting high-tech, valuable goods like computer chips or pharmaceuticals via cargo planes represents a growing part of the freight transport industry, according to a recent study of Willow Run by researchers at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

"If you look at types of shipments, the industries underlying air cargo are the ones good at (producing high-value goods), and being able to support that is a positive thing," said Lee Redding, a U-M Dearborn assistant professor of business economics who led the study.

The study also cites the overall economic impact of Willow Run, where airport-based companies employ anywhere from 1,300 to 1,500 people, depending on demand, airport officials said. The airport is managed by the Wayne County Airport Authority, which also manages Detroit Metro Airport.

The airport's economic impact was more than $200 million statewide in 2006, in terms of jobs, wages earned by employees, and the demand for goods and services associated with the airport, the study found.

In 2006, about 400 million pounds of cargo were transferred through the airport, accounting for 85 percent of operations. The remaining 15 percent is general and corporate aviation.

Fuel sales, pounds of cargo shipped, and takeoffs and landings all increased compared with a year ago, according to Willow Run Airport Director Sean Brosnan.

According to the U-M Dearborn study, about 210,500 passengers arrive at Willow Run each year on charter, corporate and private aircraft. Pfizer employees account for 65 percent, while Johnson Controls accounts for 32 percent, the study said. Domino's Pizza and other corporations also use the airport.

Pfizer's roughly $30,000 in annual landing fees is a very small part of the airport's $3.5 million operating and maintenance budget, he said.

And because the Pfizer flights don't originate at Willow Run, fuel isn't purchased there.

"They're not a big revenue generator," Brosnan said of Pfizer. "Cargo is a bigger generator and hopefully we'll continue to see (corporate aviation) continue to grow."

Pfizer's AirShuttle has been a regular at Willow Run Airport since it began the service for employees in 2003, according to Rick Chambers, company spokesman.

The company has two Embraer 135 jets with a capacity of 36 people in each. The shuttle is used by Pfizer employees in Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Chambers said the jets are typically three-quarters to completely full and often there are waiting lists. In June, the AirShuttle recorded its 100,000th passenger.

Pfizer will continue to use Willow Run well into 2008, Chambers said, but it's not clear what stops future routes will include.

The U-M study estimates that annual spending in Michigan by visitors landing at Willow Run to be $65.7 million.

Brosnan, the airport director, said Willow Run's future will be based on continued growth in cargo and corporate aviation.

On the corporate aviation side, he cited the example of Saline-based AvFlight, a plane refueling business that built a new facility at Willow Run last year.

AvFlight outgrew its original location and doubled its space at the airport, said Sherman Flake, who manages one of two AvFlight facilities at Willow Run. The company provides refueling services for corporate and private planes and also offers conference rooms and other business services for travelers.

Contact Jenny Rode at or734-994-6843.