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FAA signals shadow on airport will remain

One can hardly blame the Federal Aviation Administration for punting Thursday on the question of who will control Charlotte’s airport. Or the N.C. attorney general’s office for punting before that. Or a Superior Court judge for punting before that.

No one can decipher the confusing legislation the General Assembly rammed through stripping the city of the power to govern its own airport after 75 successful years.

A central question in the ensuing legal fight: Whether the new airport commission is an agency of the city of Charlotte or is an independent entity. If it’s part of the city, the FAA would likely clear the commission for takeoff because the city would still be ultimately responsible. If the commission is a separate entity, matters get murkier; the FAA would have to decide if the commission is equipped to run the airport successfully.

So what does the bill say? Well, it says (at least) two contradictory things.

First, it says: “There is created the Charlotte Douglas International Airport Commission, which shall be an agency of the City…” [emphasis added]

Later, though, it says: “The Commission shall be deemed a ‘special district,’ as defined in G.S. 159-7…” Statute 159-7 defines a “special district” as being “a unit of local government ‘ other than [emphasis added] a county, city, town or incorporated village’…”

That ambiguity, the FAA said Thursday, prevents it from determining whether the city or the commission would ultimately be in charge of the airport. Not knowing that, it can’t issue an operating certificate.

It has all produced a notable irony: The side that insisted it was urgent and essential to take control of the airport away from the city is now arguing that under the law they passed, the city is still in charge. And the city, which wants to be in charge, is arguing that it’s not.

Mayor Patsy Kinsey dubbed the FAA’s non-decision as “a major victory” for the city in its fight to block the commission. In fact, it’s an incremental step. As City Attorney Bob Hagemann suggested Thursday, we are at the beginning of a long legal fight. A Superior Court judge’s ruling is likely to be appealed. Hagemann said a change in airport governance in another city took 18 months to be cleared – and that one, unlike this, was a consensual change.

It’s a shame – and an unnecessary one – that such a shadow will be draped over airport operations for so long, just as the US Airways-American merger may be coming to a close. Almost eight months after the effort to seize the airport became public, the backers’ true motivations are still a mystery.

We said from the beginning that whatever the best governance structure may be, the way the legislature handled the change was rushed and wrong-headed. Just days after the proposal became public, Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, dismissed the idea of slowing down.

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

Since then, Dr. Rucho, we’ve seen – and the FAA now confirms – that this was no simple cleaning but a full-blown root canal.

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