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A Better Landing

When there's a concert, game, or business to conduct in Metro Detroit, famous entertainers, professional athletes, Fortune 500 execs, and local, national and international dignitaries do much of their flying from Oakland County International Airport (PTK).

The airport terminal, however, hasn't won many fans over the years with its unattractive building, leaky roof, drafty windows, and generally outdated facilities. Hardly the welcome mat you'd expect for the caliber of guests that land on its tarmac.

With 1.5 million passengers and pilots churning through in a year, Oakland County International Airport is the second-busiest airport in Michigan after Detroit Metro, and now a $13.5 million renovation project may bring the 50-plus-year-old terminal in line with the top-tier clientele who jet and helicopter in and out of this county-owned property in Waterford.
Going up in place of the old terminal (now razed) is a new $7.5 million facility that promises to show off some architectural panache while keeping the environment, neighbors, and the economy in mind. All in all, the project, funded not by county tax dollars but by federal stimulus money, is a job creator, image maker, and title winner.

"We're improving the airport in ways that will make it relevant in the aviation age and in a global economy," says David VanderVeen, who oversees the airport as director of Oakland County Central Services. "When people come and go from our airport we want to leave a good impression."

The project has put about 150 people to work to design and build the terminal. The building will house a lobby for the public, airport administrative offices, and a U.S. Customs office - which earn it its international airport designation.

Additional jobs were created previously by improving the grounds, extending the runway, and building a one-of-a-kind maintenance facility. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on the landscaping alone, with the intent of "making a good impression," VanderVeen says.

The airport will also carry a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified title, as it's following the Green Building Council's recommendations to keep construction and operation of the building environmentally sound. The new terminal is to be finished in July and will be Oakland County's first LEED certified project, says VanderVeen.
The upgrade is expected to add to the $175 million in economic activity currently generated by the airport, which directly and indirectly employs about 800 people, 90 percent of them in private industry. "There is a lot of reason for optimism," VanderVeen says.

Michele Hodges, president of the Troy Chamber of Commerce, sees the airport improvements as necessary for keeping Metro Detroit competitive worldwide. "It is critical that the local business community can efficiently connect with customers and markets abroad, so an improved airport is an important part of the economic development infrastructure.  We are working hard to ensure a globally minded business community, and if they can't reach those markets, our efforts are for naught."

It's a point repeated by VanderVeen, who says, "We're in an aviation age in a global economy."

The chamber is currently hosting professionals from St. Petersburg, Russia, and the Sierra Leone for several weeks, and is sponsoring a trade mission to China in 2011. "If we continue to initiate these activities, but can't execute due to a lack of infrastructure, we can't compete," Hodges points out.

The facility is known as a reliever airport and is classified as a general aviation airport by the FAA. That means it handles non-commercial traffic meant for Detroit Metro, private planes, and everything up to a 727, VanderVeen says.
The airport is also a training ground for pilots and other aviation personnel and is home to dozens of hangars and businesses that serve corporate fliers, private plane owners, and others who need their own planes - some of them worth many millions of dollars - to get places.

The Oakland County Sheriff's Department keeps its helicopter at the airport, as do many of Metro Detroit's most well known business people and sports teams. On the arrival side, visiting teams and performers headed for DTE Energy Music Theater or The Palace of Auburn Hills set down at the airport every week.

Oakland County International is improving in other ways besides the new terminal. The recent addition of a longer runway was a $2.8 million investment. Extended to a full 6,500 feet, it allows planes to fly to western states, Europe, and Asia without stopping to refuel. Before, fully-fueled aircraft were too heavy to depart from its runways.

If you ask VanderVeen, one of the biggest bragging points for the little airport that was once in a field in the middle of nowhere is its unusual ground run-up enclosure, a $3.5 million maintenance facility that hushes the engine roar during repairs and testing. This facility has become the envy of the industry, VanderVeen says.

"We had people from Barcelona come take a look recently. We were the first general aviation airport in the country to have a ground run up enclosure like this and the first in the world to actually be pretty, to take aesthetics into account." Dubai is closest to finishing something similar, "but we're still No. 1," he laughs.

Any day of the week, there are top-of-the-line jets lining up for take off. There are even more twin engine training planes and gleaming helicopters. Last week, Verizon executives who were in town for a meeting were whisked away from the tarmac in dark sport utility vehicles. It was like a scene from a Hollywood blockbuster.

In general, the economy hasn't been kind to airports, and the pressure on corporate execs to save money on private jets (following Congress' grilling of General Motors Corp. execs) has only added to the pain. But business is slowly ticking up, says Judy Gadsby, customer service manager for Aerodynamics Inc., a company that houses, maintains, renovates, and sells planes, prepares flight plans, and provides a place for pilots to lounge while their passengers do business, among other services.

"The new terminal will be great. The old one was just awful, and there are so many important people coming through here," she says.

At least 10 other companies at the airport provide services similar to her own. "It's very competitive," Gadsby says,"but we have diversified and some of the business is coming back. The runway, the terminal, the renovations can help. Anything we can do to bring the business back, we need to do."

Kim North Shine is a Detroit-area freelance writer who has dreamed often of stretching out on a private plane instead of going through the commercial airlines cattle call. Her previous article for Metromode was How To Be The Ultimate Metro Detroit Locavore.

All Photos taken at Oakland International Airport.

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