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Flashback Fridays--Once Upon a Time in Detroit

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Once upon a time, Southwest Airlines flew to two airports in the Motor City.  We began service to the area with 12 nonstop flights a day to Detroit Metro (DTW) on June 4, 1987.  Ever since the end of World War II, Detroit’s air service had been centered on airports in suburban areas west of the city.  First, all carriers served the new Willow Run Airport (YIP) in Yspilanti until the mid-1950s.  YIP had been built as a large bomber factory during World War II. 

Kind of like JFK at New York, DTW Airport was a small facility that was gradually expanded, and while it was closer to the city than YIP, it was still a suburban location.  Also like JFK, DTW’s first service was international with the European flights of BOAC and Pan American.  After the LC Smith building opened in 1957, about half of the airlines moved their operation from YIP to DTW, and for about ten years, half of Detroit’s airlines flew from YIP and the other half from DTW.  By 1967, all YIP service had moved to DTW.

However, there was another airline serving Detroit out of a third airport, Detroit City (DET).  This airport was just five miles northeast of the Detroit downtown area, or about 25 miles away from the DTW airport.  From 1966 until 1985 when it went out of business, the Cleveland-based regional airline, Wright Airlines flew between the downtown Lakefront Airport in Cleveland and DET.  Their largest aircraft were Convair 440s. 


On September 16, 1987, Southwest and the City of Detroit announced that Southwest will begin service from DET, and on May 4, 1988, Detroit Mayor Coleman Young (the airport will be later renamed the Coleman A. Young International Airport) and Herb Kelleher announce that the service will begin on July 8 of that year.  The city agreed to make improvements to the facility, and they spent $25 million on extending the main runway, renovating the terminal, and adding jetbridges. (The view above is from the DET ramp.)


Service to DET began on July 6, 1988, with Herb and Mayor Young cutting the ribbon.  We offered  13 daily flights, with eight to Chicago Midway, three to St. Louis, and two to Nashville.

A breakfast buffet served what the press release called a "Texas-size breakfast," and it also reports that "All present enjoyed live country music played by Tracey Lynne and the Mountain Express Band."  So I would guess that "a good time was enjoyed by all."

Since we have so many shots of this particular departure (above), I am guessing that it was our first outbound flight from DET.  The aircraft is N302SW, one of our 737-300s named The Spirit of Kitty Hawk.


After the universally enjoyed breakfast and entertainment, the day to day business of our operation proceeded.  Here we see Passengers entering the terminal from the one gate without a jetbridge.

Here's another shot of N302SW, this time at the gate, prior to pushback.  Over the five years that it was open, DET eventually was our primary Detroit operation.  Unfortunately, promised runway improvements didn't materialize, and on September 15, 1993, all our Detroit operations were concentrated at DTW.  At that time, DET had ten daily flights, while DTW had six.  The consolidation brought our DTW operation up to 16 daily flights.  Since 2000, when ProAir pulled out, DET has been without scheduled airline service.

We must have over a hundred color slides of the event, but this is one of those times I wish I could go back into history to retake photos to show our ticket counter, the front of the teminal, and some of the other gate areas.  Still, it is exciting to find hidden historical gems, even from what is relatively recent history, and I will keep bringing them to you on Friday.

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Detroit is nuts about Southwest, too! Thanks for many great years of Southwest service to both of our commercial airports. We look forward to having you at Detroit Metro (DTW) for many years to come! Scott W. Public Affairs | Wayne County Airport Authority Detroit Metropolitan Airport | Willow Run Airport
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I just joined this blog and am enjoying reading it. I have a question: is there a way to find out the times of flights that occurred in the past? I'm trying to recreate the travel times for August 10, 2009. Is there an archive somewhere? There used to be a schedule book -- is there an old copy from that time period somewhere available? Hope to hear from Mr. Lusk or another expert on SWA 🙂
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My first ever experience on Southwest was from Detroit City Airport to Midway in Chicago if I'm not mistaken. I don't remember much about the trip other than thinking "now that's the way you run an airline". I now live in Phoenix and Southwest is still my favorite airline and the only one I will fly!
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Thank you for another great flashback! DET was Detroit's primary airline airport from the time it opened in 1931 until the end of World War II. However, DET was just as controversial in the 1930s as it was when WN served it. Until the mid 1960s, there was a 200 foot high natural gas storage tank located very close to DET's main runway. The presence of the tank caused minimums at DET to be higher than at many other airports, which, in turn, caused many flights to divert to DTW, which had no airline service at the time. At one point in the 1930s, AA had to set up a full fledged ground handling operation at DTW, to handle all of the diversions from DET! I visited DET several times when Pro Air was based there, and in many ways, it felt like WN had never left, because the brown / orange chairs WN had purchased for their gate areas were still being used by Pro Air.