People don’t realize how lucky Charlotte is. The Charlotte Douglas International Airport hub we have today should have been in Winston-Salem or Greensboro. But both of those cities turned down Piedmont Airlines’ requests to expand their airports when Piedmont wanted to build a hub. So Tom Davis, Piedmont’s founder, came to Charlotte.
Fortunately John Belk was mayor at the time, and under his leadership, Charlotte agreed to expand our airport. That’s how we came to have the airline hub we have today. Few people could have foreseen how Piedmont’s hub would grow into what it has become.
Once the hub was established, it took off. And its success drove USAir to acquire Piedmont Airlines.
That was a great beginning. In 1989, when Jerry Orr became airport director, the Charlotte hub became even more important – so much so that it played a role in the airline merger expected this week.
Jerry Orr has made sure that Charlotte is the lowest-cost major airline hub in North America, by a very wide margin. That low cost structure is a key reason USAirways is in a strong enough financial position to acquire American Airlines.
That’s also why Charlotte has as many direct flights as we do. That wide array of direct flights has been a key factor guiding international companies like Chiquita Brands to move their headquarters to Charlotte. The result is more high-paying jobs in the Queen City.
Based on our population, Charlotte should not have an airline hub. Our city is too small to generate the traffic for an airport of this size. Even many cities with a larger population than Charlotte do not have a hub. We have the hub only because Orr has kept the operating costs so low that it’s cheaper for USAirways to fly people to Charlotte to change planes than to send them anywhere else.
As long as the airport’s cost structure remains significantly lower than competing hubs, the Charlotte hub should remain, and indeed grow. If that is the case, Charlotte is going to provide the new American Airlines with a strong platform from which to compete against Delta in Atlanta. In addition to being a cheaper place to operate than Atlanta, Charlotte is better centered to serve the U.S. east coast population.
Orr has done an amazing job running the airport as a highly efficient business. Few people would have had both the intelligence to see why low costs were critically important and the will to keep them low. Now Charlotte Douglas has a bigger economic impact than any municipal government in the Carolinas. Charlotte Douglas contributes more than $10 billion per year to the region’s economy. It has been and is our largest engine of economic growth.
But we all need to understand that if costs at the airport rise too much, we will lose the hub. I do not know of any city in the United States that has ever regained an airline hub once lost. Look at Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Raleigh. They would love to have what we have.
Our airport is now the world’s sixth busiest, and the merger could quickly propel us into fifth. There are no airports in Asia or Europe as busy as Charlotte. It is a titan among titans. On average, every 39 seconds an airplane takes off at Charlotte.
We are at the dawn of a new age, the birth of the largest airline the world has ever seen. Orr has played a big part in creating that, and positioned Charlotte and our region to benefit greatly. We owe him a tremendous debt. If the low cost structure remains, generations to come will reap the benefits of his work.
This year marks the 110th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight. That flight was here in North Carolina. Today, just as then, aviation visionaries in North Carolina, like Jerry Orr, are leading the way.
Shawn A. Dorsch is the chairman of the Charlotte Douglas International Airport Advisory Committee.
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