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Detroit's Mayor Weighs What To Do With A Local Airport

Interesting to see that Detroit mayor Dave Bing and members of his administration are looking at ways to breathe more vitality into an institution that many people believe could be turned into an economic boon for the city -- if someone only knew how: Coleman A. Young International Airport (formerly known as Detroit City Airport).

Depending on the proposals received, the airport could maintain passenger flights or go toward all cargo, Beckham said. But his hope is that it will become a secondary airport option such as Chicago's Midway Airport.

Brown said a new partnership to run the airport would attract new business and development in the area, a requirement of any proposal accepted.

Of course, Detroit mayors have been trying to get the airport off the ground for years, each of them enticed by its potential as a catalyst for city development, each of their efforts eventually crashing and burning in its own way.

City Airport (not to be confused with the much-larger Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport in Romulus) was once vital to passenger travelĀ  in Detroit. Opened in 1927 on the city's east side, the airport used to be the chief air hub for the region through the 1940s. By the 1950s, though, most commercial traffic had been shifted to another airport in Willow Run, Mich. Later, what would be Detroit Metro airport grew to become the area's dominant travel hub. City Airport (which was re-named to honor the late Mayor Young in 2003) has continued to attract corporate and cargo flights, however.

Over the decades, the efforts to grow the airport have been as numerous as they have been unsuccessful at tapping its potential. In the late '80s, Young himself oversaw a $25-million expansion of the airport, expansion that came only after lengthy fights with residents forced him to alter plans to extend an airport runway through a local cemetery. The move helped attract Southwest Airlines to City Airport in 1988 -- but the carrier was gone by 1993, saying the airport needed further development.

In 1997, Mayor Dennis Archer -- who also unsuccessfully tried to expand the runway -- convinced fledgling Pro Air to take out space in City Airport. Drawn to the prospect of cheap flights and convenient travel times, many metro Detroiters actually gave City a real chance. (I know I did.) But Pro Air quickly proved it wasn't ready for the big time and was grounded by the FAA for safety concerns. (This, after managing to somehow misplace my luggage every single time I flew that airline.) Pro Air went bankrupt in 2000.

After his election, Kwame Kilpatrick also tried to bring the airport back as a passenger hub, as the city spent millions on new improvements. Kilpatrick said the airport had a choice: Compete or close. In the end, though, it did neither.

Now comes Mayor Bing with his idea, which I think sounds sensible enough. Problem is, the hurdles that faced his predecessors still persist. The airport runways still need expansion. The facility, which is land-locked in a largely residential neighborhood, is likely still too small to attract many major commercial carriers. The neighbors are no more willing to suffer the noise of increased air traffic -- or extensive expansion of the facility in their neighborhoods -- than in years past. And, on top of this, the airline industry continues to struggle.

I think Bing's right to look for a private-sector partner on this, as there's no way the city should undertake significant development of CAY International alone. And I'd love to see the city once again have a vibrant airport. (I like that Chicago Midway analogy.) But given all the hopeful starts and sad endings to the development of the city's airport in previous years, I have to wonder whether the current mayor's idea can ever take flight.

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