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Updated airport begins to emerge at Detroit Metro


Dan Misuraca of Otis Elevator works on a moving walkway in the midfield terminal at Detroit Metropolitan-Wayne County Airport.


ROMULUS, Mich. - Jet bridges adorn some of the gates on the new midfield passenger terminal at Detroit Metropolitan-Wayne County Airport, and baggage conveyors poke through the floor in the claim area.

The glistening red tram cars that will whisk travelers from one end to the other now rest in the station at the terminal's center. And the access road that will link the new terminal with the old ones and connect all of it to Eureka Road and I-275 on the airfield's southwest side is one construction season away from completion.

With less than a year to go before its opening, the $1.2 billion, 97-gate complex that will supplant Metro's haphazard cobble of concourses is starting to look like an airport terminal.

“We're basically building a whole new airport here,” Brian Lassaline, an airport spokesman, said after observing that the mile-long midfield terminal and its 11,500-space parking deck will take up virtually the same amount of space as Metro's three existing terminals and eight parking lots combined.

But for as much as has been built already, there is a long way to go.

The lounge where customers may relax while waiting for connections has a bare concrete floor puddled with water, strewn with construction debris, and tracked with dusty footprints. The illuminated fountain that will be an aesthetic centerpiece is a bare concrete basin, devoid of life.

And the western concourse, which will handle primarily commuter and short-hop jet flights, is not far beyond the structural-steel skeleton stage.

When it all opens sometime in December, however, county and airport officials alike expect it to be the antidote for Metro's chronic traveler ratings as one of the most inconvenient airports in the nation.

“We don't like frustrations. We're trying to eliminate them,” said Charles C. McCloskey, the project construction director for Northwest Airlines, which is paying for the new terminal and will be the terminal's primary user, occupying all but a handful of its gates.

Wayne County will pay for the access road, a fourth parallel runway, and other airfield improvements that will cost $300 million or more.

Mr. McCloskey said the terminal was 60 percent complete as of last week.

When completed, the new terminal will supplant the 75 gates Northwest and its commuter-airline affiliate, Mesaba Aviation, occupy in Metro's existing terminals. Detroit is the largest of Northwest's three major hubs.

An estimated 50 percent of the Toledo air-travel market flies directly from Metro Airport, while the 71,705 passengers who used Mesaba flights to or from Toledo Express Airport made connections there.

While acknowledging that the new terminal will make Metro somewhat easier for Toledoans to use, Toledo Express officials said Friday that the local airport will still be substantially more convenient to use. Paul Toth, the airport director for the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, said reducing the long walks for which Metro is notorious should be a boon for those who use the Mesaba service from Toledo.

Metro, which was designed for one-tenth of the 34 million passengers who use it annually, finished last among the United States' 36 biggest airports in a 1997 Plog Associates survey of 90,000 air travelers. It fared poorly in more recent Conde Nast Traveler and J.D. Power & Associates rankings. And rankings of the nation's 20 busiest airports that the Wall Street Journal published Friday gave Metro one star out of a possible four, faulting the airport for long walks, scarce automated teller machines, and the highest auto-theft count in the field - though thefts include improperly returned rental cars.

The earlier Plog report gave Metro especially poor marks for gate convenience, baggage handling, ground transportation, and clarity of signs - issues that the new terminal appears particularly well suited to address.

Roads serving the arrival and departure levels will have five lanes each, which Mr. McCloskey believes will keep traffic moving despite any interference by Metro's persistent curb hogs. Rental car and parking lot shuttles will have their own access loop, so travelers using them won't have to dodge other airport traffic.

The terminal will have 11 carousels for domestic baggage, compared with just five at Northwest's current digs in the J.M. Davey Terminal, and seven more for inbound international bags.

New customs facilities have been designed to process 3,200 arriving travelers per hour, compared with 1,800 per hour at the Berry International Terminal. And the 10 gates designated for the largest aircraft, including those normally used for overseas flights, will have two jet bridges apiece, not just one, to take advantage of the multiple doors that the larger planes have.

The average time for bags to be delivered to a carousel after a plane stops at the gate should be 15 minutes, Mr. McCloskey said, with a maximum time of 22 minutes. The 26,000 feet of baggage conveyors include plenty of redundancy to guard against breakdowns, he said.

And travelers using the parking deck will be able to check baggage there, rather than having to go to a curbside handler or a ticket counter to do so. Along with 106 ticket counters, the terminal entrance will be studded with 50 electronic ticketing machines, with more such devices elsewhere.

While long distances to the farthest gates will remain a fact of airport life, moving walkways and the tram system will mean that, except during maintenance periods, the only travelers taking a half-mile walk in the new terminal will be those who want the exercise.

Unlike other airports whose people movers run out of sight in basement-level tunnels, the midfield terminal's 212-passenger trams will ride elevated guideways and travel in full view of passengers waiting for flights at their gates 21 feet below.

Mr. Lassaline said the trams will be virtually silent, floating on cushions of compressed air and towed by cables, as if they were horizontally traveling elevators. They will take 21/2 minutes for each trip between the central station and stations toward either end of the East Concourse, while a traveler riding from one end to the other will have a five-minute ride.

The smaller West Concourse, which will have eight jet gates and 25 commuter-plane gates, will be linked to the main East Concourse by a tunnel equipped with moving walkways. All of the terminal's moving walkways will be 56 inches wide - 16 inches wider than those in the existing terminals and thus designed to allow baggage-carrying walkers to pass with ease.

During a frantic eight hours in December, Northwest Airlines will move all of its terminal operations from the Davey Terminal to the new facility. “The last flight will leave over there at 11 p.m., and the first flight will leave over here at 7 a.m. the next morning, Mr. McCloskey said.

Besides Northwest, the airlines using the new terminal will be KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, British Airways, and Lufthansa. Exactly what will be done with the gates and terminal space they now occupy remains to be determined, Mr. Lassaline said, but airport officials intend to remodel those terminals to the same amenity standards that travelers using the new facility will enjoy.

“Northwest is our major hub carrier, but we also have every other major U.S. carrier here, and we want to provide the same quality service,” he said.

The south access road, a $144 million part of Wayne County's part of the project, will allow travelers approaching from the south to enter the airport directly instead of having to travel north and then east via the I-275/I-94 interchange, shaving as much as 10 minutes off their driving time.

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