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Charlotte hired airport consultant recommended by US Airways

The consultant Charlotte hired to study whether its airport should be run by an authority was recommended to the city by US Airways, which was involved last year with a group working to institute a new airport authority.

City officials said this week that they consulted with Aviation Director Jerry Orr and the airline about picking consultant Bob Hazel, who is with management consulting firm Oliver Wyman. Hazel finished a $150,000 study last week that concluded Charlotte Douglas International Airport would best be governed by an authority, rather than the city.

City Council members Monday night were flummoxed by Hazel, who told them that Charlotte is one of the best-run, lowest-cost airports in the nation and has no major problems but should still be run by an authority.

When the city first announced it was going to hire a consultant to study the issue of an authority, some critics said the consultant was going to say what council members wanted to hear – that the city should continue to run the airport.

But it appears the opposite occurred. In hiring Hazel, the city hired a consultant who generally believes large airports shouldn’t be run by cities.

“It almost sounds like you think airports should be run by authorities, period,” councilman David Howard said to Hazel on Monday. “In your opinion, should any of them be run by cities?”

Hazel declined to answer directly. He said as a general rule, small airports that receive local tax dollars are good candidates to be run by a city or town. But large airports that are so-called enterprise funds and don’t require local tax dollars to support them – such as Charlotte Douglas – should be run by authorities, Hazel said.

Charlotte Assistant City Manager Julie Burch, who hired Hazel while she was interim city manager, said she didn’t know that Hazel already had a firm belief as to how large airports should be run.

“I did not know that was his predisposition,” she said.

The city hired Hazel before US Airways disclosed that it had met with authority supporters last year and forwarded draft legislation to create an authority to an authority supporter via email.

With the N.C. General Assembly fast-tracking a bill to shift control of the airport to an authority, the City Council on March 4 authorized Burch to hire a consultant to study the issue. The study was set for completion by May 1, less than two months.

Burch said the city faced an extremely tight window in picking a consultant and that a number of candidates turned the city down because they couldn’t do the project in less than two months. Councilwoman LaWana Mayfield said at Monday’s meeting that with the city’s limited budget and short time frame, their choices of consultants were limited.

Burch said Hazel was recommended by either aviation director Orr or US Airways executives Chuck Allen or Mike Minerva.

US Airways spokeswoman Michelle Mohr said the airline recommended Hazel to the city and added that it is “entirely normal” for Charlotte to come to the airline when looking for an aviation consultant.

“The city asked us for recommendations and we provided them with Mr. Hazel’s name,” Mohr said via email. “The city also ran a few other names by us. Some we knew and recommended. Others we didn’t know, so we couldn’t give an opinion.”

The airline says it hasn’t picked a side on the authority issue and that it declined to join authority supporters in the full-fledged push to establish the new body. US Airways executives have said that what’s important from the airline’s point of view is that Charlotte Douglas stay a low-cost airport to operate from and the airline has a voice in picking Orr’s successor.

Orr said last week he thinks Charlotte Douglas should be run by an authority, not the city.

Consultant’s background

Hazel worked at US Airways as vice president of properties and facilities before becoming a consultant in 2001.

At Monday’s meeting, Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon said he didn’t realize Hazel worked for US Airways. He said he might not have approved his hiring had he known that.

Hazel responded that his work at the airline had been disclosed. It is listed in his biography posted on the city of Charlotte’s website. He also said he didn’t come into the study with his mind made up.

The city contacted 10 consultants about the job. Almost all of the consultants either turned the city down because they said they didn’t have enough time for the project, and some never returned the city’s calls.

In addition to Hazel, the city interviewed one other consultant, Steve Baldwin of Albany, N.Y.

Baldwin told the Observer on Tuesday it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to comment on the project.

In previous studies for Oliver Wyman, Hazel has recommended that airports should become more like businesses and act more quickly to make business decisions – two key points authority supporters have cited in saying why Charlotte needs to change.

‘Remnants of times past’

A September 2012 paper on airports co-authored by Hazel recommends that airports look at changing their governance structures to become more like businesses. The paper said airports “should be operated with an approach reflecting a private-sector mentality,” and that airports should look at “whether the current governance model truly supports the airport today or whether it reflects remnants of times past.”

The city has owned and overseen the airport since 1935. The bill pending in Raleigh would create a 13-member regional authority that would assume oversight and ownership of Charlotte Douglas. The legislation has passed the state Senate and is being considered by the N.C. House.

Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee has said he believes Hazel’s work was well done and thorough. He has said the city is focused on persuading legislators to follow Hazel’s recommendations that any transition be done slowly and have more Charlotte representation on the board.

Carlee said last week that he felt it was “impossible” to craft a bill that would responsibly shift control of the airport during this legislative session.

Carlee said he has been speaking to US Airways “daily” about the legislation and has also spoken with legislative leaders who support an authority.

Minerva said in an email that US Airways is working well with Carlee. The airline had clashed with the previous manager, Curt Walton, over its role in picking a successor to Orr.

“We’re impressed with his level of energy and engagement and his practical approach to problem-solving,” Minerva said.

Portillo: 704-358-5041 On Twitter @ESPortillo
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