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FAA concerns may prolong Charlotte airport battle

AIRPORT
TODD SUMLIN - tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com
US Airways jets are parked at the terminal at Charlotte Douglas International Airport Tuesday, May 7, 2013. TODD SUMLIN - tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com/ Aboard NBC Charlotte's AirStar

The Charlotte City Council Monday declined to accept the General Assembly’s plan to create a commission to run Charlotte Douglas International Airport, and said a letter from the FAA bolsters its position that the state’s plans for the airport should be stopped in court.

The next step in the airport battle comes Thursday morning, when the city will seek an injunction against the legislation that transfers operational control of the airport from the city.

The letter from the Federal Aviation Administration – as well as the city’s continued hardened position – raises the possibility of an extended legal fight over Charlotte Douglas.

The FAA did not say whether it would support or oppose the state’s plans for the city to own the airport while a commission operates it.

But the FAA said it has “several concerns” about the recently passed bill. It also said that until it makes a decision on the transfer, “the city of Charlotte remains the airport sponsor and the certificate holder.”

That reaffirms that, for now at least, the city still runs the airport.

The federal government’s overriding concern, according to the letter, is who would be the official sponsor of the airport – the city or the 13-member commission.

The FAA then listed a number of requirements the city and commission must fulfill, such as ensuring the airport will conform to federal rules. Among those requirements is that airport revenue be only used for airport-specific projects, which is the case today.

The FAA’s concerns and to-do list do not appear to be impossible to meet. But they may require the city and commission to work together, something that appears unlikely at the moment.

Democratic Mayor Patsy Kinsey gave a brief statement to the media Monday after she and council members met in closed session for more than two hours. She did not take questions.

“We received updates from staff on their interpretation of the legislation and how it will impact Charlotte Douglas International Airport,” Kinsey said. “Thursday’s court hearing will provide guidance to the City on how we move forward. At this point, given the complexity of the bill and the issues it addresses, we must wait for the courts to weigh in before we decide our course of action.”

She added the city is committed to keeping Charlotte “one of the lowest-cost, best-performing airports in the country.”

City Attorney Bob Hagemann said the FAA’s letter is “consistent” with the city’s argument against the General Assembly’s efforts to transfer control of the airport.

The General Assembly on July 18 passed a bill that would create an airport authority to immediately control Charlotte Douglas. Moments after the bill was passed, Aviation Director Jerry Orr emailed the city a letter outlining his plans for the transition. In the letter, Orr stated he was no longer an employee of the city.

That same afternoon, the city received a temporary restraining order against the legislation. That put the authority on hold and kept the city in control.

That evening, the city announced that Orr had resigned, as his letter had stated. Orr’s attorney, Richard Vinroot, said that the city fired Orr.

Last week, the GOP-controlled General Assembly took a new approach.

In an effort to thwart the city’s legal challenge, it repealed the authority bill and instead passed a bill creating an airport commission. The idea of a commission was similar to a plan proposed by the City Council on July 15.

The new legislation would keep the city as the owner of the airport – a move that the legislature designed to allay fears about the transfer of roughly $800 million in airport bonds.

But the job of running the airport, including hiring and firing, awarding contracts and making expansion plans, would be handled by the commission. Orr would also return as airport director, replacing Brent Cagle, who was named interim director July 18.

The city had proposed a similar idea. But under the city’s July 15 proposal, the City Council and mayor would make all appointments to the commission. In the Senate bill, the city would make seven of 13 appointments to the commission.

In addition, the city had only made suggestions about how much power the commission would have.

Last week, City Manager Ron Carlee said he thought the new commission bill was passed because the previous authority legislation was a “bad bill, a fatally flawed bill.”

Carlee declined to discuss the city’s position Monday night.

Former Mayor Anthony Foxx is U.S. secretary of transportation and oversees the FAA. Foxx vehemently opposed the state’s efforts to remove the airport from city control but said he has recused himself from the agency’s certification process.

Harrison: 704-358-5160
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