New Destinations

Oct. 1, 2002
The Recently Completed Northwest Airlines Hub in Detroit Eases Customer Travel
Northwest Airlines has a vision, and is acting on it. As part of its “Checklist for the Future,” the company is taking aggressive steps in building its network and securing its future – by putting customers first.Nowhere is this directive more evident than at the 2 million-square-foot McNamara Terminal/Northwest WorldGateway at the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, the location of one of Northwest’s three domestic hubs. As one of the country’s busiest airports, Detroit Metro’s facilities – although expanded and renovated over the years since initial construction in 1958 – were inadequate to handle the increase in volume of air travel, resulting in such operational challenges as overcrowding, limited road access, and restricted aircraft movement. Today, however, the McNamara/Northwest WorldGateway project is positioned to catapult Detroit Metro to a new status as a world-class international gateway for business and vacation travelers. Not surprisingly, it is expected to be a benchmark for future international airport designs and renovations as well.Bigger, Yes, But Much BetterCornell Mays, deputy director of airports at Detroit Metro, and Michael Conway, director of external relations there, emphasize that project conception – begun 15 years ago – involved many elements. In addition to the terminal, the masterplan included construction of two 10,000-foot runways, extension of another runway to 12,000 feet, additional gates, construction of a 11,500-car parking garage, and new vehicle access to the airport from the south.While the entire project is a source of pride, there’s no doubt about the excitement and sense of accomplishment they feel in the new facility. “We knew we had to have something that would rival any airport in the world,” says Mays. “We had a chance to sit down with Northwest [the developer/primary tenant] and the SmithGroup [building architect, engineer, and planner] and go through the overall palette of materials and concepts in the way the building should look. It was a good opportunity for us to mix the operation of the aircraft with amenities for passengers and state-of-the-art equipment – things that are important to an overall customer experience.”Wayne County and Northwest Airlines worked a unique agreement in which the airline became the agent for the airport owner to design and construct, and then operate and maintain, the $1.2 billion terminal facility. “It was really a collaborative effort where SmithGroup, Northwest, and Wayne County worked hand-in-hand, developing it from conceptual phases through schematic and design development, and finally construction drawings,” explains Tom Gunn, director of design and construction at Northwest Airlines. “As a result of our customer knowledge, and through simulations based on projected flight schedules in the future, we were able to look at how everything would affect the customer short- and long-term. Customer waiting is minimal; everything flows smoothly; and connections, both domestic and internationally, work extremely well.”Customers First and ForemostThe terminal’s design allowed for Northwest to reach its objective: to make it easy for passengers to remain oriented as they move through the expansive complex. Concourse A, where 64 of the 97 gates are located, consists of two, long wings laid end-to-end to create a nearly one-mile-long expanse of both domestic and international jet gates. No more series of confusing turns through which to navigate.Such an elongated shape, however, clearly required an innovative mechanism to move passengers: The high-visibility “Express Tram,” composed of two sleek red trains each carrying 200 passengers, quietly moves on a cushion of air on the mezzanine level above travelers. Alternatively, 1.5 miles of extra-wide moving sidewalks also help reduce domestic transfer time to an average of 11 minutes.Materials reflect a new openness within the terminal. “Daylight and artificial lighting were the two basic parameters that this building had to contain, so we have a very large increase in the quantity of window areas providing light into the terminal spaces,” says David King, chairman of SmithGroup, Washington, D.C. “The artificial lighting supports that and, combined with the lighter-colored building materials, the result is a dramatically lighter building.”Something for EveryoneWith 125,000 square feet of retail space, passengers are able to take advantage of the restaurants, stores, and restrooms at 10 support cores located at 400-foot-intervals throughout Concourse A. Expansive luggage handling and increased security checkpoint capabilities help passenger flow, as well as the location of international and domestic flights in the same building.Inside, unique “centers of attention” give travelers an exciting break as they wait for their flights. The Center Link’s 70-foot height offers a sense of space and ceremony, culminating in a 39-foot-wide black granite water feature that uses choreographed laminar streams to create a kinetic display. Another sensory experience can be found in the one-of-a-kind, 800-foot passenger tunnel that connects Concourse A to Concourses B and C. Here, sculpted art glass panels, LED lighting, and custom, choreographed music present an ever-changing, mood-enhancing sound and light environment.“The train, the water feature, and the tunnel are certainly the most visible design elements that make the building work,” says King, “but one of the things I’m proudest of is the fact that Northwest and Wayne County invested in quality materials throughout.” He points to the stainless steel, terrazzo, granite, and painted metal that add beauty, but ensure durability in the high-traffic setting. “The best compliments we get,” he adds, “are when someone goes into a building five or 10 years later and asks, ‘When did it open?’”Linda K. Monroe ([email protected]) is editorial director at Buildings magazine.

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