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Longing for the good ol’ days at the airport

This whole Charlotte airport mess could have been avoided, perhaps, if Sen. Bob Rucho and Rep. Ruth Samuelson had seen the movie “A Simple Plan.”

In that critically acclaimed 1998 drama, a simple plan unravels into disaster, thanks to greed, human nature, dim-wittedness and bad luck. The lead characters, including one going against his better judgment, think they can quietly nab $4 million they find in a gym bag, but one thing leads to another and before it’s over six people are dead and once-happy families are destroyed.

Sound familiar?

No one has died in the fight over Charlotte’s airport, but what started as a simple plan has gone horribly awry.

Back in February, Rucho, a retired dentist from Matthews, assured everyone that transferring governance of a mammoth operation like the airport from the city to a new independent authority was no big deal. Days after the idea first became known, Rucho dismissed the notion of slowing down.

“There’s no reason to study it,” he said. “It’s really straight-forward. It’s not that complicated.”

Said Rep. Bill Brawley: “What else do we need to know to make sure this is a good decision? We have enough information to know this is the appropriate step at this time.”

Then things started to fall apart. Questions arose about the airport’s outstanding debt of $800 million. Charlotte residents began to realize that Charlotte would have little control over appointments to the authority board. Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, a Cabarrus Republican, said until more was known about the airport’s bond covenants, “We’re violating the dad-gum constitution again.”

In the end, it all spun out of control. Charlotte’s world-class hub is in disarray just as US Airways nears completion of its merger with American. Jerry Orr, widely regarded as one of the nation’s best airport directors, is out of a job (for now, at least). And relations between the city and state have never been worse.

In “A Simple Plan,” everything is going along pretty well before the money shows up. Hank Mitchell and his wife, Sarah, have good jobs and live a contented life. It’s only when their greed and ambition overtake their good sense that they convince themselves that they could hatch a wrong-headed plot to improve their lot in life.

Everything was humming along pretty well at the airport, too, when Rucho, Brawley, Samuelson and still-unidentified businessmen decided they could hatch a plot to make things better. Now, the audience realizes, we’d have been better off if we had just been content with what we had – the lowest-cost big airport in the country, one that enjoyed far more flights than a city our size could normally sustain.

For awhile, it all just seemed like a political spectacle. Now a fundamental engine of our region’s economy could truly be at risk. US Airways released a statement saying it was disappointed in Orr’s departure and a key architect of the authority, Stan Campbell, is trying to sow doubts about Orr’s replacement.

Authority backers said they got involved because they didn’t want the airport to become politicized. Yet nothing in its history has politicized it as much as the legislature’s meddling.

All parties need to take a deep breath, act like adults and find a way to obtain what everyone wants: An efficient, high-performing airport positioned to keep Charlotte growing for generations to come.

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