By LORAINE ANDERSON
Traveling soldiers, sailors and Marines no longer have to worry about being stranded at Detroit Metropolitan Airport without a lounge to call their own.
Thanks to a group of Delta Airlines employees, the year-old "Freedom Center" has taken the hubbub out of Delta's Detroit hub. During its first year of operation alone, the Freedom Center hosted visits from 30,000 military personnel.
The 1,100-square-foot lounge in the McNamara Terminal opened Nov. 1, 2011, after a two-year effort by Traverse City-born Capt. Ken Pratt and several others. Pratt is the son of Helen and Don Pratt, who moved away from Traverse City when he was a little boy but returned after retirement and lives in Traverse City today.
Detroit Metro is the nation's 12th largest airport. Unlike the other 11, Metro has no USO center for traveling military personnel. The likely reason is that the others are located near military installations, Pratt said. Detroit is not.
The effort to get a military lounge at Detroit Metro started in December 2009, about a year after the Delta-Northwest merger, he said. Several Delta employees saw the need and asked for office space to set up a volunteer-run center, on their own time, for the holiday travel season. Delta gave them a conference room at Metro. An average 100 military travelers and families a day used it.
In 2010, the group opened their temporary holiday lounge for three weeks and found more volunteers from veterans associations to help staff it. More than 2,400 soldiers, sailors and Marines passed through then.
"We were convinced there was a need," said Pratt, an eight-year veteran pilot in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam era and a 21-year reservist with the Michigan Air National Guard who has flown for Northwest and Delta for 25 years.
"Detroit Metro is a big crossroads for the U.S., Europe and international travel all over the world," he said. "Large numbers of military people transit through there every day."
Working for Delta, Pratt flies B-767 jets from Detroit to other North American cities. That enabled him to visit several airport USO centers.
"There are three common threads for the successful ones — support from the local airport authority, a ring of corporate and financial support and a corps of dedicated volunteers," he said.
The Detroit group briefly considered lobbying for a USO center, but opted for an independent operation to get one going as soon as possible. They drew up business and work plans, showed their statistics to the Wayne County Airport Authority and then offered to create and staff the center at no cost in exchange for space. The authority agreed.
Renovations started in October 2011 and the Michigan Armed Forces Hospitality Center in the McNamara Terminal opened the following month. Some of its supplies and most of its furnishings — including three bunk beds — are donated by corporations, businesses and individuals.
About 65 to 70 volunteers share a rotation to staff the center, which is open daily all year long from 6 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Flight delays and bad weather often mean it's a 24-hour operation.
Military personnel get a small discount on airline tickets and some airlines will pay hotel fees if flight delays are caused by mechanical problems.
"But they're on their own if the delay is caused by bad weather or other 'acts of God.' That's where we step in," Pratt said. "The federal government doesn't pay soldiers enough money to buy a $10 sandwich in the airport or pay an average $75 a night in a Detroit airport hotel."
The Freedom Center entrance is located near Gate A43 in the McNamara Terminal.
"It's standing room only there on some days," Pratt said Thursday morning. "We had about 30 here last night."
Pratt's work on the project earned him induction last month into Delta's Chairman's Club, the airlines' highest yearly employee recognition award. However, Pratt said many people made the project happen.
"The Freedom Center is not my baby, the board of directors or Wayne County's," he said. "It's a Michigan facility and something the whole state can be proud of and hopefully support."