I’m extremely proud of the Charlotte airport. It’s been my honor, as aviation director, to help it grow over 24 years to become the nation’s eighth busiest, moving more passengers than LaGuardia or Reagan National, with 730 departures a day. With 350 dedicated airport employees, we kept costs low and efficiency high, creating an airport that business leaders will tell you is the most important engine driving our region’s economic growth.
Now, Charlotte-Douglas International Airport is about to embark on a leadership change I believe will ensure its growth and good health for another generation. But first, we must move beyond the petty politics and controversy that have ushered in this change. The stakes are too high for us not to.
Next month, the newly created Charlotte Airport Commission will meet for the first time to begin charting the airport’s future. It’s an independent decision-making board mandated by state law, and its 13 members are undeterred by a legal challenge that, for now, limits its authority. The commission members are capable leaders with varied backgrounds in business and civic affairs, appointed by the city of Charlotte, Mecklenburg County and surrounding counties. And I look forward to serving them, as the commission’s executive director, through the transition as they learn about the intricacies of running the $165 million airport we call “CLT.”
At the same time, the city of Charlotte continues its fight to overturn the N.C. law that created this commission. The city hopes to maintain sole control over the airport instead of embracing the regional commission that the city’s own independent analysis found would be a “more effective form of governance.” Surprisingly, the city continues this costly course, even though the law allows it to choose a majority of commission members.
For me, this debate is a no-brainer. A commission structure is far better for the airport – and the people of this region – for reasons articulated in the city’s independent analysis:
• It reduces political involvement in airport management, enabling airport managers to better concentrate on running the airport most effectively.
• The commission can function like a corporate board to add value by focusing on and understanding the business of the airport.
• Finances are completely separated from that of the city, county and state, helping to ensure airport money isn’t diverted for other projects.
• It can develop its own contracting and procurement policies, making procurement more nimble and lowering costs.
Charlotte-Douglas has been able to achieve what the city’s analysis calls “spectacular success” because previous city leaders gave the airport a measure of independence. We kept the city manager and council members well informed, and when public projects went beyond the scope of typical airport operations, they were undertaken with consent of city officials – and for the city’s benefit. Such independence will become enshrined under the new airport structure.
But no matter how people feel about this change, we must work to resolve the airport dispute quickly. People are tired of political stalemate, and continued bickering creates the misimpression of instability at our airport. That’s risky, particularly at a time when our biggest tenant, US Airways, is negotiating a merger and deciding which airports to invest in, and when competition to attract new business – and jobs – is fiercer than ever.
As for me, I don’t expect to win any popularity contests, but I have always sought to do what’s best long-term for our airport, our region and our state. I look forward to returning as airport director to help ensure a smooth transition. At 72, I also look forward to retirement – which I plan to do no later than June 2015.
This timeframe allows us to finish the airport’s new intermodal rail service, which will make cargo shipment far more efficient throughout the Carolinas. My retirement also would coincide with the expiration of the state committee that will oversee the early development of our Charlotte Airport Commission. By then, the commission will have chosen or be well down the road in its search for a permanent director, as well as in negotiations to renew service contracts with US Airways and other airlines.
With these pieces in place, I feel confident the commission will have begun to pave the way for the continued success of a stable and independent airport for the next generation of this great region.
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