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Details, if not clarity, on airport struggle

We’re still not sure exactly what led to Charlotte being on the brink of losing control of its airport, but a more palatable path forward seemed to become clearer last week.

A draft report of a city-funded study, released Thursday, recommended that Charlotte-Douglas International Airport be overseen by an independent regional authority. That would seem to be a victory for state legislators and others who’ve pushed a bill that would take the airport from the city, but he study recommends that the authority give Charlotte more representation than is currently called for in the bill.

The recommendations may offer Charlotte at least a partial salvaging of control over the airport it has run since 1935. It also may offer the appearance of compromise for legislators pushing the bill. Is it the best solution for the airport? Given what we don’t know, that’s a difficult question.

More details surrounding the airport emerged last week from former city councilman Stan Campbell, who told the Observer’s Rick Rothacker that Charlotte business leaders and U.S. Airways representative met 10 months ago to address concerns that city officials were trying to get longtime airport director Jerry Orr to retire. That meeting, Campbell says, led to an email from US Airways containing a draft of legislation that eventually led to the bill awaiting N.C. House approval.

Details, however, don’t necessarily equal clarity. The mayor says he never tried to get Orr to retire – and in fact has turned down Orr’s offers to do so. Former city manager Curt Walton isn’t talking about those conversations, and Orr isn’t talking at all. US Airways CEO Doug Parker initially told the Observer on Wednesday he wasn’t aware of an email containing draft legislation, but the company fessed up to it Friday.

Parker, in a meeting with the editorial board last month, said the airline didn’t care if Charlotte ran its airport. That apparently wasn’t true either. But Parker did make this clear: He wants to US Airways to have a substantial say about who succeeds the 72-year-old Orr, and there are strong indications the airline didn’t get assurances that would be the case from the city. If true, the city’s hubris turned disastrous.

That leaves us on the brink of a change that seems needlessly preemptive. Charlotte’s airport is among the nation’s most successful, in large part because it keeps costs low for airlines wanting to do business here. Charlotte Douglas’ cost-per-passenger is the lowest of the top 25 U.S. airports, said the draft of the study released Thursday. Its author, former US Airways vice president Bob Hazel, said the airport was “spectacularly successful.”

Still, Hazel said Charlotte Douglas would be best separated from city finances and politics. His compromise: The airport authority should include mostly appointments from Charlotte, Mecklenburg County and other local organizations. Surrounding counties should have limited representation, he said. The state doesn’t need any.

We still believe a regional authority removes a level of accountability that comes with having the airport supervised by an elected city council. But with the city appearing to be on the losing end of a old-school power play, we hope lawmakers take Hazel’s advice and make this unnecessary change a little more purposeful.

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