Detroit's spirits soar with new North Terminal

— -- In the construction dust on the new North Terminal's giant signature windows, someone was inspired to draw a big happy face — a fitting symbol of the mood around Detroit Metro Airport after the terminal's completion.

Airlines, travelers and tourism officials can't wait for the $431-million terminal to open for business Wednesday.

But even with its state-of-the-art equipment, great lighting and cool shops, the terminal can't escape the financial issues plaguing airlines. It will open with six of its 24 gates vacant.

"When is it going to be filled? Not anytime soon," said Vaughn Cordle, chief analyst for AirlineForecasts, a research firm based in Washington, D.C. "New terminals are nice, but they don't generate traffic."

By contrast, all gates at the McNamara terminal were leased when it opened in 2002.

Opportunities for growth

The Wayne County Airport Authority projects that passenger traffic at the North and McNamara terminals will drop in the 2009 fiscal year by about 7% from 2008. Airlines set to occupy the new North Terminal are projecting a 12.6% drop.

At Spirit Airlines, Detroit's second-largest carrier, projections call for a 31% drop in passengers in fiscal 2009.

Spirit leases six gates at the Smith terminal, which the North Terminal replaces. The airline will lease only two in the North Terminal, with an option to use a common-use gate nearby several times a day, said Jake Filene, Spirit's director of airport affairs and administration.

It will occupy fewer gates for a couple of reasons: Spirit isn't flying as much as it once was out of Detroit, and it is also operating more efficiently.

The terminal "is opening at an inopportune time for the industry," Filene said. "But the terminal has been years and years in the planning. ... It provides a lot of opportunity for future growth."

However, a new terminal isn't enough to lure a carrier to add flights, said Daniel Kasper, managing director for LECG, an economic consulting group in Cambridge, Mass.

"What airlines look for mostly is: Can the facility accommodate efficient travel management?" he said.

Bernard Parker, a member of the Wayne County Airport Authority board, said the terminal was designed to have capacity to grow, but added that officials did not expect to have so many gates empty.

Filling those gates will help the airport generate revenue and keep costs down for the airlines, he said.

A way to bring in business

This isn't just a problem for Metro Airport, Kasper said. Across the country, many airports are dealing with empty gates as the airline industry struggles.

Aviation analyst Terry Trippler said having six vacant gates isn't necessarily cause for concern. If business travelers like the terminal, they will take away a better impression of the area — and may decide to have a convention or do business in metro Detroit.

A new terminal — along with the proposed merger between Northwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines — could give Detroit a big image boost, and may spur other carriers to add flights, he said.

Any Northwest-Delta expansion of flights would happen at McNamara, however.

Though Northwest leases all the gates at McNamara, it may not be using them at full capacity, which will allow for growth.

Kasper agreed that the merger could help Detroit by raising its status in the industry.

"Delta already is re-jiggering its system, increasing the importance of hubs," Kasper said. "Hubs that are well-situated with ample capacity will be in a position to get some growth."

Lester Robinson, chief executive for the airport authority, said Metro Airport will continue its efforts to attract flights to fill up the space at the North Terminal. He said the facility is in a good position, having empty gates ready to go in a state-of-the-art environment.

Airports that have to build to accommodate more traffic can face years of construction.

Passenger-friendly features

The facility is quite a turnaround from the Smith and Berry terminals.

The North Terminal has more eating venues and restrooms. It offers moving sidewalks to help passengers navigate the half-mile concourse. It also has lots of electrical outlets for laptops and cellphones and an easy-to-navigate linear layout.

With the North and McNamara terminals, Metro Airport now has two of the newest terminals in the country, said Jeffrey Gordon, station manager for AirTran airlines in Detroit.

"It's open, airy, bright, cheerful," Gordon said. "We've yearned for something new."

Airport officials said the Smith and Berry terminals have been a drag on the airport's customer-satisfaction ratings.

"With a good airport, Detroit becomes more attractive," said Michael O'Callahan, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The new terminal is also a step in the right direction for the region's aerotropolis effort, an initiative to attract investment around the airport.

"We have a world-class airport, and it will get even better next week with the opening of the new terminal," Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano said at a breakfast meeting about the initiative last week.

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