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Study: Costs drive effort to create airport authority

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    A public hearing on the proposed airport authority is set for Tuesday, April 16, at 7 p.m. in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center uptown.



Concern over possible rising costs was one of the main drivers behind the push to remove control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport from the City Council and give it to a new, independent authority, a preliminary study released Friday said.

The findings in the five-page report from a consultant largely mirror what’s already been reported in the Observer about the push for an airport authority.

Charlotte city officials have been fighting the bill to create a regional authority, which is being considered in the state legislature. The Senate has passed a version of the bill. The House is expected to wait for the city to finish its study before voting.

The Charlotte City Council has agreed to pay consulting company Oliver Wyman $150,000 for the study. The completed study, which will detail how other airports are run, is due May 1.

Consultant Bob Hazel interviewed more than 40 airport stakeholders for his preliminary report. Hazel spoke to airport employees, local and state politicians, airport tenants and others involved with the legislation.

None of those interviewed are named in the report.

The most common reasons given by authority supporters had to do with the fear that the city would increase costs for tenants at the airport. That could drive away US Airways, which operates about 90 percent of the daily flights from Charlotte.

“There is a natural tension between the City’s need for revenue to support services and programs, and the Airport’s goals of keeping operating costs to a minimum,” Hazel wrote.

While federal law forbids using airport revenue for non-airport purposes, Hazel said that supporters of an authority believe that the airport will still end up paying more for services if it is operated by the city.

Charlotte Douglas is a major hub because it is a low-cost airport, not because the city has a large enough population to support the 700-plus daily flights at the airport. The airport’s cost per passenger is the lowest in the nation among large airports.

Giving surrounding counties a voice in running the airport rather than keeping it under Charlotte’s control was also a reason authority supporters cited.

Four counties that would have seats on a new airport authority board – Iredell, Lincoln, Gaston and Union – have passed resolutions supporting the bill.

Hazel said that both supporters of an independent authority and continued city control cited the same incidents as reasons to bolster their cases. Those include a decision to transfer control of airport police to Charlotte-Mecklenburg police – which raised costs from $2.6 million to $5.5 million a year – and a problem with accounting for bond money that led the city to put tighter financial controls on the airport.

Supporters of an authority say those incidents are examples of city overreach. Supporters of city control say they’re examples of effective oversight and reasons City Council should continue running the airport.

“The one issue on which there was clear alignment of all stakeholders is that the Airport is enormously important to the success of the City, and that no one wants to create conditions that would interfere with that success,” Hazel said.

He also noted that the preliminary study didn’t shed light on any new reasons behind the effort to establish an airport authority.

“Since most, if not all, of these subjects have already been reported in the press, and were raised in many interviews, we note simply that we have become well-acquainted with stakeholders’ views on these subjects,” Hazel wrote.

Portillo: 704-358-5041 On Twitter @ESPortillo
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