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Foxx calls airport proposal reckless

By Jim Morrill
jmorrill@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx is asking backers of a proposed independent airport authority to slow down and study the idea, which now appears on the fast track to legislative approval.

“I’m very concerned about what I see as a ready, fire, aim approach,” Foxx says. “I would urge caution before folks pull the trigger.”

A new Charlotte Regional Airport Authority – pushed by influential Republicans in a Republican-led legislature – could be created within months, even ahead of a finished merger of US Airways, the airport’s biggest client, and American Airlines.

Charlotte Douglas International Airport, under city control since 1935, would be the latest city-run airport to make the transition, and the last major North Carolina airport to switch.

Airports in Des Moines, Iowa, Detroit and Hartford, Conn., are among the most recent to fall under control of authorities. Last year the North Carolina General Assembly created the Greater Asheville Regional Airport Authority.

Some members of the city’s own Airport Advisory Committee, which is appointed by city council, suggest Charlotte should follow.

“I don’t see how it could be anything but a good thing to have a dedicated board of directors focused on the airport,” says Shawn Dorsch, the committee’s chairman.

An authority, says committee member C. Morgan Edwards, “makes it more like a business.”

However, some experts say there’s little evidence to prove such assertions.

Who appoints board?

Bills in the North Carolina House and Senate echo much of the Asheville legislation, with one major exception: The governor, speaker of the House and Senate president pro tem would each have an appointment to the 11-member board, which would include representation not only from surrounding counties but elsewhere in North or even South Carolina. The proposed authority would have broad powers over airport decisions, including contracts. In fact the bill says the authority’s powers “shall be construed liberally in favor of the Authority.”

Under the proposal, the authority could include only two people from Charlotte and one other from Mecklenburg County. And two members, chosen by the other nine, would be aviation experts from either Carolina. Members would be unsalaried but reimbursed for expenses and subject to the state’s open meetings law.

The authority would be responsible for virtually everything involving the airport, including the hiring of an aviation director. The current longtime director, Jerry Orr, reports to Charlotte’s city manager.

Proponents say authorities are more efficient.

“It’s a very positive, 4-star idea,” says Jerry Fitzgerald, an aviation consultant who once ran LaGuardia, JFK and Newark airports for the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. “None has ever been a failure. In fact just the opposite.”

Consultant Bill Fife, a one-time deputy general manager of JFK, agrees.

“I’ve never heard anybody say, ‘Gee whiz, we ought to make (an authority) back into a city agency,’ ” he says.

Others say the benefits of an authority may be exaggerated.

“There’s an urban myth within the airport community that authorities that have greater autonomy from local officials can operate the airport with greater flexibility in a dynamic and changing industry … that they can make decisions more quickly,” says Daniel Reimer, a Colorado-based attorney who specializes in aviation law.

“There is not robust enough evidence to say that there’s a substantial difference, across multiple measures of performance, to say authorities work better than city- or county-run airports.”

Reimer was lead author of a 2009 study of airport governance financed by the Federal Aviation Administration. According to the report, “There are no obvious correlations between airport governance structure and other attributes.”

Foxx says he’s asked legislators to at least study the idea.

“Even if it were a good idea, it would be an even better idea after an actual study to look at all the implications of making such a radical governance change,” Foxx says.

“There doesn’t seem to be an appetite for that.”

Serve a wider region

Proponents of a Charlotte airport authority say it would make the airport poised to better serve the needs of a wide region.

“It’s a regional asset, it’s a statewide asset,” says Sen. Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican and bill sponsor. “We want to ensure that the best people with the best level of knowledge will be part of the decision process.”

Others say an authority would help insulate the airport from politics, especially with the anticipated retirement of the 71-year-old Orr.

“We don’t want (the airport) to become a political plum, a graveyard for retired politicians,” says GOP Rep. Bill Brawley of Matthews, House sponsor. “We want a dynamic, focused, qualified airport management authority that can nurture and grow an economic asset.”

Similarly, supporters of the new Asheville authority have said it reflects the airport’s regional impact. It gave Henderson County a voice in airport management along with the city of Asheville.

But critics called it a heavy-handed power grab.

“(It’s) very much sort of partisan, smack-down of the city,” says Barry Summers, a local activist. “It was all about the Republican legislators being in a position to settle scores and … basically bullying the city.”

In Charlotte, city officials say their management has smoothed out airport financial issues and shored up airport security by turning it over to Charlotte-Mecklenburg police. The city, they say, can be more responsive than an appointed board to noise concerns by people who live in a flight path.

The authority would also have the power of eminent domain, that is, acquiring private land, but only “for public use for an airport purpose.” The legislation spells out that no land may be taken “for such uses as hotels, motels, restaurants, or industrial parks.”

Because the airport falls within city limits, the city has – until now – spent millions on road improvements and other projects that benefit it.

“I wouldn’t take it as a given that the city would be so willing to invest,” Foxx says, “not only because of how the governance is structured but how this has happened.

“I think this could damage the equilibrium that we’ve had for so long, everybody pitching in to make the airport successful.”

Morrill: 704-358-5059
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