Passenger's luggage sits in the Delta Baggage Service area at Detroit Metropolitan Airport in Romulus, Mich.
Passenger's luggage sits in the Delta Baggage Service area at Detroit Metropolitan Airport in Romulus, Mich. - 
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Steve Chiotakis: Good news has been hard to come by lately in Detroit. The last few weeks have been especially bad with GM and Chrysler bankruptcies. But another form of transportation has been a bright spot for the battered Motor city. Sarah Hulett of Michigan Radio reports.

Sarah Hulett: Detroit Metro Airport was already one of the busiest in the nation. But when Delta Airlines merged with Northwest earlier this year, it made Detroit the second-largest hub for the world's largest airline.

Scott Wintner: So that really puts Detroit front-and-center for starring role in the future of air transportation.

That's airport spokesman Scott Wintner.

This week, Delta added non-stop flights to Rome and Shanghai out of Detroit. And company officials say they see Detroit as the airline's gateway to Asia.

The launch of two major international routes was buried under headlines about General Motors' bankruptcy filing. But Wintner says the destinations -- especially to the coveted China market -- are no small thing:

Wintner: At a time when we have to place a declining amount of reliance on the auto industry as our sole economic asset here, the airport is ready and waiting -- ann really has been, though upstaged by the auto industry -- really has been a strong economic asset.

Local leaders hope to make the airport the center of what they call an "aerotropolis:" basically, a cluster of businesses surrounding the airport. Everything from warehouses and shipping companies to entertainment venues and corporate headquarters.

Robert Ficano is the top official in Wayne County, where Detroit and the airport are located. He acknowledges the aerotropolis is a bit of a foreign concept in the U.S.

Robert Ficano: But you go to Frankfort, you go to Schipol, you go to Beijing, you can see that they've been able to turn it into an economic engine, and we have this opportunity here.

Ficano says Detroit is better-positioned to become an aerotropolis than other places, because its airport has lots of vacant land around it, it's got gleaming new terminals, and it's near the international border with Canada.

Marketing to potential developers is expected to start soon. And backers of the concept hope it will help re-start the Motor City's economic engine.

In Detroit, I'm Sarah Hulett for Marketplace.