Saying it can’t resolve who should be in charge of Charlotte Douglas International Airport, the FAA on Thursday kicked the issue back to a Superior Court judge to clarify whether a newly created Airport Commission is part of the city of Charlotte or a separate entity.
That means that, for now, the Federal Aviation Administration has kept the airport under control of the city.
In August, Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin said it was up to the FAA to determine who should hold the airport’s operating certificate: the city or the commission.
Both sides said the federal government’s decision, detailed in a letter, is positive for their case.
Mayor Patsy Kinsey called it a major victory. City Attorney Bob Hagemann also said it was a boost for the city because he said the commission had predicted it would get swift approval from the FAA.
“(Commission attorney) Richard Vinroot presented to the court (in July) that they would get FAA approval in a matter of days,” Hagemann said.
Vinroot said Thursday the letter clarifies what needs to happen for the commission to operate the airport. “I think it’s a very constructive step,” he said. “This letter bodes well for the commission’s right to run the airport.”
Vinroot said the FAA had essentially punted the question back to Superior Court. “They said, ‘Judge, you need to catch this,’” Vinroot said. “We think the answers to the questions are quite easy and obvious.”
In its letter, the FAA said it needs clarification “whether the Commission is an agency of the city or an independent, special district.” The FAA also asked “who is responsible for the key roles of the airport sponsor and operator. ...”
“Therefore it is our view that the Superior Court must address at least these questions of state law before the FAA would be in a position to review sponsor eligibility and determine whether a Part 139 Operating Certificate needs to be issued,” wrote Christa Fornarotto, the FAA’s associate administrator for airports.
Vinroot’s position is that the commission is part of the city, and that control of the airport isn’t being transferred away from the City Council.
Hagemann said there is conflicting language in the legislation that shows the commission would be separate from the city. “The bill is littered with ambiguities and contradictory language,” he said.
Vinroot said he hopes the issue will come back before Judge Ervin and hopes the matter can be settled within weeks.
Vinroot had been upset because the FAA had told him it would only discuss the question with the city and the N.C. Attorney General’s Office. At one point, Vinroot suggested that former Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, who is now U.S. Secretary of Transportation, might be influencing the process.
Foxx has recused himself from the airport question, as well as other Charlotte-specific projects, for a year.
For the past several weeks, Jerry Orr, the former city aviation director, and Vinroot, his attorney, have been in charge of the commission. The commission is now being run by a board that will ultimately have 13 members.
So far, nine board members have been appointed, including four by the Charlotte City Council. Kinsey must still make three appointments, and Mecklenburg commissioners must make one selection. Gaston, Union, Iredell, Cabarrus and Lincoln counties also have made appointments.
When all members are appointed, seven, a majority, will have been appointed by the City Council or Kinsey.
Just as the City Council and Kinsey have directed the city’s legal strategy, the new board will likely guide the commission’s plans.
Orr still being paid
Charlotte Chamber President Bob Morgan said Thursday morning that the letter “puts the ball back in the judge’s hands.”
“We’ve long preferred that the city and the state find a way to come together outside the courtroom to solve this critical issue,” Morgan said. “Perhaps this provides some impetus to that happening.”
Orr hasn’t worked at the airport since late July but is still being paid his salary from airport funds.
Hagemann said his interpretation of a July temporary restraining order was that not all parts of the legislation were put on hold. One part of the law still in effect is that Orr is the head of the commission, and should be paid, he said.
When asked Thursday whether the city would seek a court order to allow it to stop paying Orr, Hagemann said, “I can’t predict what will happen in the future.”
He added, however, that the commission will soon have a board. It’s possible commissioners could vote to no longer pay Orr until the commission is running the airport.
US Airways concerned
Orr attended a news conference held by Vinroot Thursday afternoon.
He said he has spoken frequently with US Airways during his 60-day time away from the airport.
“They are greatly concerned,” Orr said. “They want this to be done. And they want this to be done now.”
US Airways has said it doesn’t have a position as to who runs the airport. The airline has said it only wants management to remain committed to keeping Charlotte Douglas a low-cost airport.
Eric Frazier contributed
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