Detroit Airport Floats Plan for a Longer Runway

YPSILANTI -- The Wayne County Airport Authority wants to lengthen an east-west runway at Willow Run Airport to accommodate large cargo planes, while minimizing the impact on Canton Township.

The change is part of the airport's proposed master plan revision, which seeks to spur job growth and economic development in the area. It would scrap a controversial earlier runway proposal to route large planes over populous and developing areas of Canton. And it would avoid environmental concerns and the costly rerouting of major roads in the area, officials said.

The longer runway would help accommodate the large carriers that depart from the airport 250-300 times per year, officials said.

It also would provide for the growing cargo business at Willow Run.

"This is not about new flights, though," said Sean Brosnan, the authority's director of Willow Run Airport. "This is existing flights that will help save the automobile industry and perhaps will continue to make us competitive with the world -- to supply parts to Europe for automobile production and other things."

The proposal must be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, which bases its massive construction-financing decisions on the master plans at airports throughout the country.

The earliest the runway could be lengthened is probably 2007, officials said.

Willow Run generates about $276 million in business in the state, according to the Bureau of Aeronautics, of the Michigan Department of Transportation.

The amount of cargo hauled from the airport increased 14.2 percent in 2003 and about 13 percent in 2004, Brosnan said.

Residents can review and comment on the new master plan at a meeting from 6-8 p.m. Tuesday at the Holiday Inn Express, 46194, N. I-94 Service Drive, Belleville.

If the master plan is approved, and if the FAA considers granting money for financing the longer runway, two public hearings would be held before the project could proceed.

Opposition by residents, primarily from Canton, and tough environmental barriers killed the airport authority's previous master plan, which called for a runway from the southwest to the northeast at Willow Run, and which would have directed departing flights over Canton.

Under the new proposal, large planes would take off directly over the sprawling General Motors Hydramatic Plant, which is adjacent to the airport.

"This is a Canton-friendly plan," said Michael Conway, director of public affairs and environment for the airport authority.

Area residents are adopting a wait-and-see attitude. But news that the controversial runway has been eliminated was greeted favorably.

"Of course that sounds better," said Barbara Adams of Canton. "Let's just hope it does not make the noise there any worse. Some mornings, we've had a huge plane flyover, and it's like the house is coming apart."

The new master plan also eliminates two of the airport's six runways, Brosnan said.

The proposal should help assure area residents that while the county hopes to spend considerable funds from the FAA to upgrade historic Willow Run, much of the money will be spent on safety concerns, including taxiways. Air traffic, they say, is unlikely to increase dramatically.

Automakers and suppliers account for some of the cargo traffic at the airport, and the short runways at Willow Run drive up expenses, the officials said.

A longer runway would eliminate stopovers in Nova Scotia, Greenland or Iceland that are required for many flights to Europe because planes leaving Willow Run cannot carry enough jet fuel on the shorter runways.

Among the companies grappling with the problem is Daimler-Chrysler, which flies dashboards, built in Toledo, from Willow Run to Austria for assembly in Jeep Cherokees, which are popular in Europe.

"The bottom line is that the Big Three, when they are choosing to ship auto parts for the world, could choose another carrier, other than a Willow Run carrier," Conway said. "We would like the jobs to stay here in Wayne and Washtenaw county were we can do it more efficiently, without the extra stop."

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