Wheels Up: Detroit City Airport Finds New Business


The Coleman A. Young International Airport in Detroit is making its infrastructure available for uses other than takeoffs and landings, and generating income for the city.

On Monday, Road & Track magazine is expected to bring the “top 15 cars in the world” to one of two runways at the airport for testing and a photo shoot, says general manager Jason Watt. He says the magazine approached the airport more than a month ago and has evaluated the airport’s shorter runway, at 3,715 feet, for its use.

Watt was waiting to hear from Kevyn Orr, the city’s emergency financial manager, for his signoff on the project.

“I’m almost 100 percent certain it’s going to happen,” Watt says. “I don’t think there’s going to be an issue.”

The airport’s longer runway, at 5,090 feet, is expected to remain operational for corporate flights on Monday. There are no commercial operations at the airport now but there have been in the past.

In turn, Detroit Aircraft Corp. is designing and testing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones, at the airport. Mindful that the FAA has until 2015 to issue new rules for operating UAVs in U.S. airspace, the drones are flown inside the large executive bays at the airport.

In turn, Watt says a 2.5-year partnership with Avflight, a full-service FBO (fixed based operator) is paying dividends. When Avflight set up operations, it had a goal of selling 25,000 gallons of aviation fuel a month. Today, the company is selling 50,000 gallons of fuel a month, Watt says.

Corporate traffic also is on the rise. When Watt took over airport operations three years ago, annual operations (takeoffs and landings) were 57,000. They have since climbed every year — 67,000 in 2011 and 78,000 last year. This year, Watt projects there will be 82,000 operations.

“Now that the airport is being professionally run, it’s totally been cleaned up, and we have a great partner in Avflight, the corporate community is taking notice,” Watt says. “When there is a major event like the playoffs, Monday Night Football, or major conferences (in Detroit), we’re wingtip to wingtip with Gulfstreams, Falcons, Hawkers, and Embraers.”

Watt also is working with Detroit Public Schools and the Tuskegee Air Museum to reactivate an aviation school. Last year, DPS closed the neighboring Benjamin O. Davis High School, where students could earn their pilot’s license and an airframe and powerplant license prior to graduation. “We’re hoping to have some news on the project shortly,” Watt says.