One man stands at the center of this swirling controversy over Charlotte’s airport. In 25 years, Jerry Orr has built a reputation as one of the nation’s best airport directors.
But he also has a reputation for being gruff and abrasive and his clashes with city leaders helped fuel the airport power struggle that has thrust Orr’s job into limbo. Love him or hate him, Orr’s name is synonymous with Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
The man who was – until recently – head of the eighth busiest airport in the country can’t remember the last time he flew on a plane.
“I don’t know,” says Jerry Orr, voice trailing off. It’s been at least two years, he guesses. And it was most certainly for business because he’s never flown on a vacation:
“I’m not comfortable flying – or riding in a car - with somebody else driving,” says Orr.
Plain and simple, Orr prefers to be in control – as his history with the city proves. Prior to taking a job as an airport engineer with the city in 1975, Orr had never actually worked for anyone else. He was running his family’s land surveying company when then-aviation director Josh Birmingham convinced him to coordinate construction of the airport’s new terminal.
“Well, I had reservations about going to work for government,” admits Orr.
Anyone who’s seen the scowl on Orr’s face as he sat through a city council meeting waiting for his projects to get approved knows his distaste for bureaucracy. Luckily, he says Birmingham gave him a lot of freedom.
“I’d come in and tell Josh, my boss, ’Here’s what’s happened and here’s what I’m doing’ and he wouldn’t say anything so I went on and did it,” recalls Orr. “And I got used to that fairly quickly.”
That same autonomy carried over when Birmingham retired and Orr took the aviation director’s job in 1989. His bosses at city hall – the city manager, mayor and council - gave him a long leash, typically signing off on his plans and requests with little or no public debate.
“That was the secret to this thing being as successful as it is,” says Stan Campbell, who served on the Charlotte City Council from 1987 to 1995. “We let Josh Birmingham and then Jerry Orr run the airport as they saw fit – and it prospered greatly. And it raised the question, ’Why is the city all of a sudden deciding to meddle with the airport?’”
The “meddling” he’s referring to was mostly the work of former city manager Curt Walton whose clashes with Orr over the airport’s security and finances intensified in the last few years.
By the middle of 2012, Campbell and a core group of Orr supporters were at work on the recently-passed legislation to get the airport transferred out of the city’s control and into the hands of a regional authority. Orr wanted that transfer, but denies driving the legislation. He didn’t have to - his discontent had already set the ball in motion.
Because what Orr thinks matters a lot to businesses that rely on Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
“We like Jerry Orr - we’d like him to keep doing this forever,” quipped US Airways CEO Doug Parker earlier this year.
US Airways has tried to stay on the sidelines of the authority fight, but has clearly stated its desire to see Orr’s low-cost management of the airport continue. Orr’s legacy is undoubtedly on his own mind these days, as he waits for the court to decide if he’ll get his job back. The city booted him from the airport last week (Note: there is some dispute over whether Orr resigned or was fired) but if the airport authority is allowed to take over, Orr will run it.
Back at the end of May, Orr hosted WFAE in his office above Concourse A for a quick look at his plans for the airport. He’s in the middle of $200 million in new construction projects - just the latest in two decades of steady growth.
“I have lots of things to do,” said Orr, rifling through a pile of charts and large sketches of a new entrance road and parking decks splayed on a small conference table.
“I like construction because you plan something and then you execute it and then you see it,” said Orr.
But, at least for now, Orr is no longer in the control of his plan. He can only sit and wait for a judge to decide if he’ll get to come back and see through his latest round of construction.
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