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Orr’s job, legacy in balance as Charlotte airport drama unfolds

Is this the end for Jerry Orr, Charlotte’s longtime aviation director, or a break before his next act?

After Orr’s ouster last week, his job remains in limbo until a judge determines whether an airport authority can proceed. If the authority is enacted, Orr, 72, will automatically become its director – his job is written into the law.

It appears his increasingly controversial, sometimes defiant, leadership style has either secured Orr the most powerful post of his career or brought his nearly four decades at Charlotte Douglas International Airport to a stunning end.

His tenure has been marked by remarkable growth at the airport, success that, over time, seemed to embolden Orr’s sense of autonomy. As Charlotte Douglas grew to become the nation’s sixth-busiest airport and US Airways’ busiest hub, city officials rarely questioned his decisions.

By the late 1990s, he told the Observer, “this is my airport.”

Orr, a native Charlottean and land surveyor by trade, joined Charlotte Douglas as an engineer in 1975. He became aviation director in 1989.

Orr supporters have reacted furiously to his removal Thursday after the legislature passed the airport authority bill.

State House Speaker Thom Tillis called his departure “incredibly irresponsible” and an “unwise decision.” Former City Council member Stan Campbell called the City Council’s actions “petty, petulant,” risking creating “chaos” and “havoc.”

US Airways, the airport’s dominant tenant, praised Orr in a statement after his ouster, saying it was his leadership that led to Charlotte Douglas’ growth into a major hub with 700 flights a day.

But the signs have been clear for some time that Orr’s storied career was in jeopardy.

Tension peaks

Rumors circulated last year that the city was trying to push Orr to retire. Those concerns, and uncertainty over who would succeed Orr and whether US Airways would have a voice in picking his successor, helped inspire the push for an authority.

US Airways said in a statement in April that it was worried about the “potential forced retirement of Jerry Orr and the loss of his successful, cost-effective model of airport management.”

City officials told Orr earlier this year not to lobby for an authority. But he publicly said in April that an authority would run Charlotte Douglas more efficiently than the city, and that he had always thought so. State Sen. Malcolm Graham called for Orr to be fired for insubordination.

Council members grew increasingly frustrated.

In closed-session meetings, some had discussed whether he should be fired, especially after he came out in public in favor of an authority.

But newly named City Manager Ron Carlee resisted the calls for disciplining or firing Orr.

This week, however, City Council members say Carlee had no choice but to remove Orr. After the legislature passed the bill to create an independent authority, Orr sent the city a letter saying he was director of the authority and no longer worked for the city.

Warren Cooksey, a Republican City Council member, compared Orr’s actions this week to a senior executive in the private sector going behind his bosses’ backs to create a spinoff company. “Not only would he be terminated, there would be the possibility of legal action against him,” Cooksey said.

Increased success, power

Since 1971, two men have led Charlotte Douglas airport: Josh Birmingham and Jerry Orr. Both were born and raised in Charlotte.

Orr graduated from N.C. State University in 1962. He succeeded Birmingham upon his retirement.

For more than two decades, Orr presided over steady expansion. Orr kept costs low – among the lowest of any major airport. That was the key to his success in keeping a hub through years of turbulence at Charlotte Douglas – as Piedmont Airlines merged with USAir, became US Airways, went through two bankruptcies, and merged with America West.

US Airways executives consistently credit Orr’s low-cost approach with convincing them to keep the airline’s busiest hub in Charlotte. US Airways CEO Doug Parker joked earlier this year that he would like to see Orr run Charlotte Douglas “forever.”

Cost-saving measures are one of the hallmarks of Orr’s tenure, helping to keep tenants happy and lure new ones.

Meanwhile, he fit new pieces of the airport together like a jigsaw puzzle.

For example, when Charlotte Douglas built its third parallel runway several years ago, the airport used millions of cubic yards of dirt from next to the runway site. That left a large, flat graded site, sunk about 40 feet below the runways.

Then, in 2011, the airport rebuilt the center runway and had the old concrete crushed onsite. The recycled concrete was used to make a rail bed on the excavated site next to the runway – which Norfolk Southern used to build its new intermodal cargo rail yard.

Former Mayor Richard Vinroot, now an attorney representing Orr, recalled how Orr’s renown preceded him when the pair took a trip to London during Vinroot’s term in the early 1990s. They went to dinner with the chairman of British Airways, and Vinroot remembers what the chairman told him.

“He said, ‘Young man, you are the mayor of the city that has one of the two best airport directors in the world,” Vinroot said. The other best in the world? The airport director for Dubai.

Controversy over the years

In addition to praise, Orr’s brusque style generated criticism.

In 1997, federal investigators disagreed with Orr after a small plane crashed. The conflict: Orr wanted to clear the wreckage so planes could take off, while the government wanted to probe the incident.

“I wanted to investigate. He wanted to avoid a traffic jam. But we had to ask him to stop picking things up and to restore the scene,” the investigator told the Observer after the incident.

And over the years, City Council members have sometimes lamented they didn’t have any real oversight of Orr, who had a budget entirely funded by airline fees, concession revenues, airport parking and federal grants.

“The council knows less about the airport and how decisions are made and what decisions are made than it does about any other department,” then-City Council member Don Reid told the Observer in 1999. “It’s obvious Jerry Orr has done a great job of making Charlotte Douglas one of the best airports in the country. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a better handle on what’s happening out there.”

In 2001, two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, Orr asked that new rules barring people without tickets from going through security checkpoints into the airport be relaxed. “Not allowing the (nonticketed passengers) through the checkpoint decreases the amount of concessions we generate. That’s the money we use to operate the airport,” Orr said at the time.

Critics blasted Orr, and people without tickets remain barred from passing through checkpoints.

The disputes have been more serious in recent years.

In 2010, an Internal Revenue Service audit found the airport violated federal tax law when allocating millions of dollars in tax-exempt bond money to pay for airport improvements. The city placed stricter financial control on the airport in 2011, removing some of Orr’s autonomy.

Last year, the city took control of the airport police, which had formerly been an independent agency reporting to Orr. The move followed a bizarre 2010 incident in which Delvonte Tisdale, a North Mecklenburg High School student, is believed by some investigators to have stowed away in the wheel well of a US Airways flight and died at some point before his body fell outside Boston. Charlotte-Mecklenburg police conducted a security review at the airport after the Tisdale incident, and said there were issues with the airport police’s security program.

The change in police control incensed Orr, who called the switch a “debacle” in internal emails. Months of bureaucratic infighting followed.

A unique manager

Prone to deadpan quips, Orr’s dry sense of humor sometimes leaves listeners puzzling over his remarks.

Ask him when he’s planning to retire and Orr often replies with a line about how he’s wanted to retire since the day he started work.

Try a variation of the question, and ask how long he plans to stay at his job. “Through the end of the week,” he’ll answer. Or, “I don’t have a plan. I haven’t had a plan in my life.”

At a Charlotte Chamber summit last year, Orr told the audience that the airport was “spending money like a drunken sailor.” The next day, his public relations team hastened to clarify to reporters that Orr was joking, and the airport was a responsible steward of public funds.

One of Orr’s trademark lines, one he often deploys during interviews, sums up his self-assurance: “I am often wrong, but never in doubt.”

And since airport checkpoints fell under the oversight of the federal government after Sept. 11, Orr has his own definition for what the letters in TSA (Transportation Security Administration) stands for: “Thousands Standing Around.”

Orr’s office in the airport terminal overlooking the airfield – stuffed with kitsch, including a mannequin with a cigarette taped to its mouth, model airplanes and a Burger King robe – now sits vacant, airport officials said. Interim Aviation Director Brent Cagle works out of an office at an administrative building almost a mile from the terminal.

Orr’s supporters expect him to return. Campbell said he believes the city will lose its bid for a permanent injunction and Orr will return to run Charlotte Douglas. “I’m not worried,” Campbell said. “We will wait our 10 days, and go to court and get it taken care of.”

Orr seems to agree. He told the Observer as much on Thursday, after his removal: “That would be my guess.”

Staff writer Steve Harrison contributed.

Portillo: 704-358-5041 On Twitter @ESPortillo
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