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Airport authority plan looks risky, not prudent

Gov. Pat McCrory finally added his voice Monday to ours and others to slow down the legislature’s full-throttle push to take Charlotte Douglas International Airport from the city of Charlotte and set up a regional authority to run it. Danger signs are popping up all over this unnecessary move, including the example of the Asheville Regional Airport authority, which was set up last summer in similar fashion by the N.C. General Assembly.

Troubles plaguing that authority, including a possible cost to the city of Asheville or the state of more than $2 million, shout out for slowing the rush to switch Charlotte’s airport governance. The costs to the much larger Charlotte airport could be substantially higher.

Asheville also is facing concerns from the Federal Aviation Authority about the new law possibly violating terms of FAA grants to the airport and about the authority’s ability to protect airspace and restrict land use around the airport, as the FAA requires. These issues could have and should have been ironed out before lawmakers made the change. They are definitely concerns lawmakers should address before Charlotte Douglas is pushed into a similar authority set-up.

Lawmakers also must resolve questions about the transfer of more than $800 million in bond debt if an independent authority, not the city, governs the airport. The city’s bond attorney sent a letter to the city finance department last Tuesday saying the city could default on that debt if the airport were switched to an authority.

If those weren’t enough flashing danger signals to get lawmakers to slow down and study this change a lot more before approving it, Asheville’s governance squabbles are another. The seven-member authority is about half the size of the proposed 13-member Charlotte board, but there already have been fights about who should be members, and there were two vacancies for months.

Here’s another concern: Like the law creating the Asheville authority, the Charlotte proposal does not require any of the members to have aviation experience. If lawmakers were really concerned about effective governance, the plan would. Instead, the legislation only “encourages,” “when practical,” appointing members with “experience in aviation, logistics, construction and/or facilities management, law, accounting, and/or finance.”

None of Asheville’s authority members has aviation experience. The chair is a lawyer, the vice-chair a banker, and the four others include a retired college president, a hospitality industry executive, an energy company executive and the president of an economic development group. One seat remains vacant.

Charlotte Douglas airport, governed by the city of Charlotte since 1935, is recognized as one of the best run airports in the nation. A strong case for switching control to an independent authority has not been made. In fact, the switch seems more risky than prudent – given the concerns being raised and the Asheville experience so far.

Politicians from both parties have urged more study and debate before this massive public policy change is made. Gov. McCrory has now added his key voice to such prudence. The legislature should listen. Its failure to do so could be costly.

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