The push for an independent airport authority gained momentum when business leaders and a US Airways representative met privately 10 months ago, former Charlotte City Council member Stan Campbell says.
Earlier that spring, Campbell says, he had heard that city officials wanted longtime Aviation Director Jerry Orr to retire at the end of 2012. Now some Charlotte business leaders were worried about the future of a prized economic engine: Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
Attendees at the introductory gathering included US Airways executive Chuck Allen and Charlotte transportation consultant Michael Gallis, says Campbell, who also was there.
“Somebody said, ‘What can be done?'” Campbell says. “‘This could be a real mess if Jerry leaves.'”
Turns out there was a potential solution. Around that time, lawmakers passed a bill that transferred control of Asheville's airport to a new authority. Days later, on June 8, Campbell says, he received an email from a US Airways official with an attached rough draft of a bill that would do the same to Charlotte Douglas, the world's sixth-busiest airport.
In interviews with the Observer this week, Campbell gave the most detailed account yet of how a group of business leaders, including the airport's major airline, engineered a push to shift control of the airport from the city of Charlotte to an independent authority.
On Thursday, the effort gained a boost when a city-commissioned draft report backed the authority approach with some modifications. Lawmakers have said the measure could come to a vote after the report is finalized.
Not everyone agrees with Campbell's version of events.
US Airways CEO Doug Parker on Wednesday told the Observer that he wasn't aware of any email with draft legislation sent by the airline. Allen didn't respond to a request for comment, but a US Airways spokeswoman denied that the xairline had sent any such message.
Campbell, who wouldn't identify who sent the email, says he talked to other US Airways officials about the bill in addition to Allen. By early January, he added, the airline had decided to remain neutral on the legislation.
Parker, however, has made it clear that his airline expects to have a big say in choosing Orr's successor, and Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx has said he supports giving US Airways a seat at the table.
It's a particularly sensitive issue for US Airways, Campbell says, because Foxx is a candidate to become the U.S. Transportation Secretary, one of its regulators.
Campbell says he became involved after he had heard that Foxx and then-city manager Curt Walton had pressed Orr to retire. But Foxx press secretary Al Killeffer said the mayor adamantly denies having any meeting with Orr to persuade him to retire. Killeffer said Orr has offered to retire – and Foxx has turned him down.
Walton, who retired in December, said he could not comment on conversations with Orr because they are personnel matters. Orr couldn't be reached for comment.
Campbell's narrative shows Charlotte business leaders exerting their muscle, harkening back to a time decades ago when a select few business titans were often seen as the city's de facto government.
The dispute has drawn battle lines between Charlotte and the legislature in Raleigh and stirred tensions with neighboring counties. It also spurred an unusual meeting this week where City Council members grilled their own airport advisory committee chairman, Shawn Dorsch, over his role.
The airport is at a particularly critical stage. It serves as a major hub for US Airways, which is merging with American Airlines. It's also home to a planned intermodal facility that promises to knit together air, rail and ground transportation networks to create a global trade complex.
The Observer has previously reported that tension between Orr and his bosses had mounted in recent years. The aviation director had chafed at the city's decision to take over the airport's police force, and city officials had questioned how the airport allocated millions of dollars in bond money to pay for airport improvements.
Campbell says he first heard of the move to push out Orr from Gallis, who has done work for Charlotte Douglas.
Campbell says the June meeting was at a West Morehead Street office but won't say which one. Gallis says he remembers talking to Campbell about the airport but doesn't recall the meeting. He has an office in that area.
After getting the draft legislation, Campbell says a loose-knit group of business leaders began researching how to make it work for Charlotte.
Among the business leaders who had raised red flags about the airport was developer Johnny Harris, although he didn't attend any meetings, Campbell says. Harris in an interview said he had been concerned for more than two years about the airport. He had been a US Airways board member for 10 years and knew airlines were drawn to airports with low costs.
Charlotte Douglas has the lowest cost per passenger of the top 25 U.S. airports.
“All of a sudden the political talk seemed to signal a move away from that,” Harris said. “That gave me concern.”
Harris said he felt it was “certainly within reason to evaluate an authority,” but he didn't know the inner workings of the airport or of any meetings.
Another figure who played a role was Dorsch, a Charlotte entrepreneur who was the volunteer president of the Carolinas Aviation Museum. Campbell says he met him in the fall and he was helpful when the group had questions about airports.
By early December, Campbell had talked to his friend, state Sen. Bob Rucho, about the bill, and it was introduced in mid-February.
On Feb 14, Dorsch published an editorial praising Orr's leadership in the Observer. “We are at the dawn of a new age, the birth of the largest airline the world has ever seen,” he wrote. “Orr has played a big part in creating that, and positioned Charlotte and our region to benefit greatly… If the low cost structure remains, generations to come will reap the benefits of his work.”
Officials from two surrounding counties have said Dorsch contacted them to promote the regional authority. That led to this week's intense meeting in which council members accused him of betraying the City Council's trust. On Tuesday, Foxx booted him from the panel.
Campbell says he did not give Dorsch instructions to talk to other communities. Dorsch was traveling late this week and said he was not able to contribute to this story.
One person who was not involved in the authority push was Orr, says Campbell. The aviation director had previously said he was supportive of an authority but couldn't be involved in the effort, Campbell says.
Orr has since hinted that he could retire this year. “I think Jerry would love to be there for the opening of the intermodal facility,” Campbell says. “He also wants to retire and go fishing.” Staff writers Steve Harrison, Jim Morrill and Ely Portillo contributed.
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