Updated from 3:17 p.m. EDT

DETROIT -- Some view Detroit as a symbol of a vast industrial failure. Delta Air Lines ( DAL) sees it as a jewel.

"We're most excited about the future of Detroit, its role as the primary Asian gateway from the East Coast," says Glen Hauenstein, executive vice president of Delta, which acquired Northwest and its hub here in October. The deal makes Detroit the second-biggest hub, after Atlanta, for the world's largest airline.

"Despite all of its woes, Detroit is still a very large city, in the top metropolitan areas, and an optimal hub," Hauenstein said, in an interview. "Not only is the airport beautiful, but to fly from the East Coast, it is the most direct route to Asia." Detroit-Wayne County Airport is the country's 12th busiest, with about 36 million passengers annually.

Delta's terminal in Detroit

Already, Delta and its partners fly non-stop to Tokyo, Nagoya, Amsterdam, Paris and London, with flights to Shanghai and Rome scheduled to begin June 1. One-stop service to cities throughout Asia is available through Northwest's Tokyo hub. And "We think Detroit to Asia can be larger," Hauenstein says.

Amazingly, the Detroit that Hauenstein sees goes largely unnoticed by many, particularly in a city so busy feeling sorry for itself that it can barely conceive of such vast potential in its midst.

Throughout history, the most important cities have been transportation hubs, says John Kasarda, a professor at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina. "In the 18th century, the great cities were ports," Kasarda says. "In the 19th, they were railroad cities. In the 20th, they were highway cities. In the 21st century, they will be cities with international airline connections."

Clearly, a continued role as a primary gateway to Asia and Europe can help to assure Detroit's future, he says, noting: "Detroit Metro Airport is the region's primary infrastructure asset (and) the speedy connectivity it provides to area businesses can help Detroit's economy transform to new sunrise industries, at least partially making up for job losses that are likely to continue to occur, (while) even these older industries will be more competitive in the future with a strong aviation hub.

"Of course, Detroit Metro by itself will not lead an economic turnaround in the city, since other changes must occur in the business climate," Kasarda says "But without the hub, even greater pessimism for recovery would prevail."

Today, the news from Detroit is dominated by the impending bankruptcy of General Motors ( symbol) and the overall downsizing of the auto industry, social woes connected to high unemployment and various problems in the local government.

Reporters from around the world visit here and "trot alongside homeless people or laid-off autoworkers for a day or two," according to a recent story in the Detroit News. "Toss in a few foreclosed homes and the desperate condition of the Big Three, and the world's picture of Detroit as the symbol of America's humbled economy is complete."

Despite image problems, John Carroll, executive director of the Detroit Regional Economic Partnership, says companies from around the world see value in locating in Detroit, still an automotive center with an expanding global airport.

"Quite frankly, the merger is going to strengthen the airport and Detroit's position," Carroll says. Like many major hub cities, Detroit is keen on presenting its best face at the airport, where each year millions of connecting passengers gather impressions of the area.

For Delta/Northwest passengers, connections occur in a gleaming new $1.2 billion, 122-gate terminal that opened in 2002, replacing an ancient terminal. Passengers on other airlines use a second new terminal that opened last year. An airport authority, affiliated with Wayne County, presides.

Pre-merger, Northwest dominated the airport. It had about 500 daily departures and a workforce of 2,000 customer service agents and ground service workers, while Delta had 14 daily departures to its hubs and a workforce of about 200. Delta's total Michigan employment, including crew bases, totals about 8,000.

Major transitional events occurred at the end of March. First, Northwest employees got new uniforms at an event staged by station manager Andy Zarras, a 25-year Northwest employee who is now a vice president of customer service for Delta. It included hot dogs, peanuts and an appearance by former Detroit Tigers player Gates Brown. The groundwork was laid in the fall, when workers selected their new uniforms at a fashion show: Employees modeled new styles; designer Richard Tyler offered consultations; and hair stylists, beauticians and tailors provided services.

On March 30th, the airport was transformed. Delta's logo, stylistic enhancements and navy blue color scheme took over, replacing Northwest red. "If you came in at 9 p.m. it was Northwest as far as you could see, red everywhere," Zarras says. "When the last flights left, the contractors came in."

Gates got new signage saying "Delta KLM AirFrance." Between the stanchions, blue ribbons replaced Northwest's black ribbons. Priority boarding lanes, formerly "Northwest Elite," were rechristened "Delta Breezeway." Screens on the airport kiosks changed, and the four World Clubs were rechristened as Sky Clubs.

Zarras describes the task of integrating the airport workforces using a family analogy. "Northwest in Detroit was like a big ethnic family, with brothers, sisters, cousins, etc.," he says. "I met with the pre-merger Delta people to welcome them to the Northwest family. I told them 'You come from a small family. You have one brother, one or two cousins. You just married into a very large family.' "

Delta shares closed down 69 cents, or 11%, to $5.56 on Wednesday.

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