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."

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