The Tactical Traveler



A note to readers: The twice-delayed Midfield Terminal at Detroit/Metro airport is finally scheduled to open on Sunday, February 24. Although the $1.2-billion, 97-gate facility is almost totally dedicated to Northwest flights, the opening of a new terminal at any airline’s major hub has a ripple effect on travelers nationwide. I recently toured parts of the facility with the crew of Michigan Radio’s Todd Mundt Show. Here’s my extremely preliminary report.

What an airport terminal looks like is rarely an important consideration for frequent flyers. But Detroit/Metro’s existing terminals are so dark, dreary, cramped and depressing that looks do matter here. From that standpoint, the Midfield Terminal will be a smashing success. The building has high ceilings, lots of natural light and a clean, uncluttered, modern look that can’t help but win raves from Detroit travelers and the millions who connect at DTW. Yet the plaudits are relative. The terminal is essentially a long barn with lots of glass. There isn’t an interesting or unique feature anywhere (save for a 38-foot-wide fountain) and not a single piece of art in the public areas. This building would be panned for its plain-vanilla approach anywhere else, but, at DTW, clean and bright is beautiful.

If you’re a plane, the Midfield Terminal will work wonderfully. But for travelers hauling luggage and connecting between flights, the terminal is the frequent-flyer equivalent of a marathon run. The 5,000-foot-wide Concourse A has 64 gates--all positioned in two parallel lines. That should cut aircraft taxi times, especially in bad weather. But that also means it’s a one-mile walk from Gate A1 to Gate A78. There are moving walkways and an elevated, indoor tram that makes three stops inside the concourse. As long as they work, Concourse A will be manageable. Travelers originating in Detroit enter Concourse A from the 106-counter check-in area, which is located approximately in the middle of the facility. A 900-foot underground tunnel with moving walkways connects Concourse A with Concourses B and C, which have a total of 33 gates that are earmarked for Northwest commuter flights. A plus: All the regional gates are serviced by jet bridges. Another plus: Northwest and its code-share partner KLM will operate its international flights from the Midfield Terminal, meaning there’s no need to change terminals if you are connecting to or arriving from an overseas destination. A negative: Connecting from the Midfield Terminal to DTW’s other terminals isn’t convenient, so don’t even think of changing airlines in Detroit.

The Midfield Terminal will definitely be a work in progress when it opens. Only about half the contracts for the 40 food and 40 retail concessions have been awarded. So, shopping and eating options will be limited; there won’t even be a full-service, casual, restaurant open for months. And prepare for sticker shock: The airport’s operating authority has reneged on an earlier pledge to require retailers to charge no more than their off-airport locations. Good news: DTW, which a doctor’s group once called the worst major airport in America to get a healthy meal, will have much better options in the Midfield Terminal. Branches of two local Detroit restaurants, Musashi’s Sushi Bar and the Mediterranean Grill, promise welcome relief from high-fat fast foods. Meanwhile, a 404-room Westin Hotel is connected to the terminal, but it isn’t scheduled to open until late this year.

Northwest is opening four WorldClubs at the Midfield Terminal: one at each end of Concourse A, one in Concourse B, and a 20,000-square-foot facility near the ticketing area and the central entrance to Concourse A. This club is spectacular, with granite and hardwood surfaces, leather chairs, fireplaces, a gaudy display of art, shower facilities, lockers, and modem and laptop power hookups at each table.

Detroit travelers will be able to arrive directly at the Midfield Terminal by a new series of roadways. The terminal even has its own 11,500-spot parking garage. Best of all, travelers will be able to go directly from their parking spots to the Midfield Terminal without ever going outdoors. An enclosed waiting area will shelter arriving passengers awaiting taxis, shuttles or limousines.

The Midfield Terminal is officially named the Edward H. McNamara Terminal, continuing the airport operating authority’s infuriating practice of naming DTW’s buildings after Detroit bureaucrats. McNamara is the current Wayne County Executive, which is where the airport is officially located. The existing terminals are named after a county engineer (L.C. Smith), an airport director (J.M. Davey) and a road commissioner (Berry). But it gets worse: The existing terminals and the new Midfield Terminal have duplicative concourse letters and gate numbers.

Northwest is planning to move its entire operation (including commuter flights and KLM international service) to the new Midfield terminal overnight on February 23. And there continues to be persistent reports that Northwest’s baggage system at the Midfield terminal is malfunctioning. Expect huge glitches, delays and confusion in the first few days and weeks. Other airlines planning to use the Midfield Terminal, including Lufthansa and British Airways, may not move there on February 24. If you’ve got a BA or Lufthansa flight to or from DTW on or after Sunday, check directly with those airlines.

Pictures, drawings, information and maps of the Midfield Terminal are available at a special Website.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright © 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.