Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti Township, where 8,600 B-24 Liberator Bombers were built during World War II, will soon begin a $30-million project to upgrade a major north-south runway. The two-year effort joins several major aviation initiatives in progress in the region. An economic bellwether, corporate and cargo air activity has been ascending in tandem with the state’s economic recovery.
“There’s more confidence in the business community, and our government leaders in Washington, D.C., are recognizing private aviation is a more efficient way to run corporate operations,” says Sean Brosnan, director of Willow Run Airport. Last year, flight traffic at the airport increased 5 percent, to more than 70,000 takeoffs and landings.
Willow Run, built in 1941, has recently welcomed Los Angeles-based Platinum Equity, a merger, acquisition, and operation firm
that formed Active Aero Group in Belleville after acquiring a majority interest in Active On-Demand and USA Jet Airlines Inc. Platinum Equity is owned by Tom Gores, majority owner of Palace Sports & Entertainment and the Detroit Pistons.
Mitch Noble, COO of USA Jet Airlines, says the business has been growing both in cargo services, which accounts for 75 percent of the business, and passenger charter services, which accounts for the rest. The company, which operates more than a dozen aircraft, including DC-9s, Falcon 20s, and MD-83s, has 250 employees.
“With the automotive industry coming back, we’ve picked up business among the Big Three, but we’ve also seen increased flights for pharmaceutical companies, electronics firms, the U.S. Department of Defense, and FEMA, and we’ve even moved Shamu, the killer whale,” Noble says. “You name it, we can haul it.”
On the passenger side, the company is seeing growth beyond its stable business of chartering college basketball teams around the country. The latest users include college golf, softball, and lacrosse teams. The company also provides charter services for three professional hockey teams.
“With USA Jet Airlines and Active On-Demand, we have a lot of synergies that extend out to corporate aviation,” Noble says. “We can service aircraft, fuel aircraft, and store aircraft. Plus,
we offer global air charter, air cargo, and courier services.”
Nearby, the closed 5-million-square-foot Willow Run plant that produced B-24 bombers, Tucker automobiles, and parts and components for General Motors, is being marketed to global industrial users. “Our goal is to attract a manufacturer in the automotive, aerospace, or health care sector,” says Bruce Rasher, redevelopment manager for the Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response (RACER) Trust, which took control of the property in March 2011 as part of GM’s bankruptcy. “There also could be a play for a light industrial/logistics distributor.”
The 321-acre site, where soil remediation is under way, is located adjacent to a rail spur. Ideally, the plant, which was shuttered in late 2010, would suit a defense contractor, an aircraft producer, or a company that refurbishes large planes. Parts of the plant could be demolished to make way for an end user, Rasher adds.
Long term, Wayne County has plans to add entry and exit ramps to the site, though the project has yet to be funded.
At Oakland County International Airport in Waterford Township, Corporate Eagle Cos. will welcome two Falcon 2000 jets for use among 27 corporate member companies, including Atlas Oil Co. in Taylor, Allied Metals Corp. in Troy, and Art Van Furniture Inc. in Warren. Corporate Eagle offers member-exclusive fractional aircraft ownership in metro Detroit and in Clearwater, Fla.
The refurbished jets — the cabins will offer an upscale conference room setting for up to 10 people, along with room for two pilots and a flight attendant — will arrive in August. To accommodate the aircraft, Corporate Eagle is building a 14,000-square-foot hangar that is scheduled to open by November.
“Our business has been tracking upward as our clients grow, and we used the (economic) downturn to keep our staff together and improve our facilities,” says Rick Nini, president and CEO of Corporate Eagle. “Our pilots have received more training, especially on the international front, and we’ve remodeled our conference room and VIP lounge. As a result, we’re picking up new business today.” db