Dec. 15, 2020

Three years ago, the future of aviation at Coleman A. Young International Airport (DET) looked bleak.

The once-busy airport, 6 miles from downtown Detroit, MI, saw traffic decline following the city’s budgetary problems and the 2008 recession. Detroit officials subsequently proposed repurposing the long-neglected airport for non-aviation purposes and commissioned a study of alternative uses for the valuable property.

At that time, key stakeholders, with help from NBAA and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, rallied support for the airport. Years of hard work and perseverance advocating for the airport ultimately paid off. The mayor and city council now recognize the critical role DET plays as an economic engine for the region, and have made a 180-degree turn, setting out a path to revive the airport.

“NBAA strongly believes in the power of our members and local aviation supporters to influence change. We were happy to provide local airport advocates with legal and regulatory expertise, help develop the plan of action and assist in getting the support of the FAA,” said Alex Gertsen, NBAA director of airports and ground infrastructure. “DET is a great example of a collaborative national-local partnership prevailing in airport advocacy to save a historic airport.”

The effort to save the airport took form in 2017, with Michael Zabkiewicz, general manager and chief pilot at DET-based flight department Air Eagle, leading the formation of the Coleman A. Young International Airport Education Association, a broad coalition of airport-based businesses and other stakeholders. At a city council meeting that summer, association members urged the city to maintain aviation at the airport, touting its economic significance to the region and its role in transportation and education.

“For 10 years it was really difficult,” said Jason Watt, the city’s airport director. “Now I can see how bright the future looks for this airport. I appreciate the support from NBAA. The challenge has been met with a significant reward, and that makes it all worth it.”

The city recently submitted an Airport Layout Plan (ALP) to the FAA and the Michigan Department of Transportation, which serves both as a guide for DET’s future and a predicate for federal financial assistance to make the plan into a reality. Much of the ALP involves “rightsizing” the airport’s facilities for anticipated activities, including but not limited to increased business usage.

The list of safety and utility enhancements includes ensuring compliance with current FAA standards, lengthening the primary runway and installing the engineered material arresting system at both ends of that runway.

At an event this year, Mayor Mike Duggan confirmed the city’s new direction.
Watt envisions a revitalized mixed-use general aviation airport, with all new development on the west side, and hopes to add a maintenance, repair and overhaul facility in the future.

“The goal is to have diverse aviation uses that will make it recession-proof in the future,” he said. Plans also include returning the Davis Aerospace Technical High School to the airport.

“There are very few general aviation airports that are on the precipice of something significant like this,” said Colin Wheeler, project manager with the firm Kimley-Horn. “There is an overwhelming opportunity for flight training, cargo transport and other aeronautical uses. For the first time in decades, the city is behind the development, and so is the local community.”

Zabkiewicz said the airport is important for business aviation, but that’s just one piece of the puzzle. “To be successful, all of the pieces are equally important – medivac, flight training, community organizations, and getting kids involved are just as important to the success of the airport.

“For an airport that had fallen on hard times to be on the brink of a revitalization is truly inspiring,” he added.

Wheeler expressed a similar sentiment.

“I have worked for 50 or 60 airports in my career and DET is among only a handful where I get this sense of exhilaration,” he said.

Learn more about Coleman A. Young International Airport.