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US Airways CEO: We want Jerry Orr back

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US Airways CEO Doug Parker emphatically voiced support for embattled former Charlotte aviation director Jerry Orr on Wednesday, saying he should be back running the airport.

Parker has frequently praised Orr for keeping Charlotte Douglas International Airport’s costs to the airline among the lowest of any hub airport in the nation. Parker said earlier this year he would want Orr to run Charlotte Douglas “forever.”

But Wednesday was Parker’s most definitive pronouncement in favor of Orr.

“We’re staying out of the politics,” Parker said, during a conference call about the company’s third-quarter earnings. “But politics aside, Jerry Orr has done an amazing job, and we’d like to see him back in there.”

Orr lost his city job after the N.C. General Assembly passed a law this summer transferring control of the airport from City Council to a new, independent body. The city and Orr still disagree about whether he was fired or resigned.

“Jerry Orr has been a phenomenal airport director,” Parker said. “The city owes (Orr) a tremendous debt, and I hope people realize that.”

The controversy over whether an independent commission or the city should run the airport is tied up in court, with a hearing scheduled for Nov. 1. For now, the airport remains an independently funded department of the city, with interim aviation director Brent Cagle running the airport and reporting to city manager Ron Carlee.

Orr is technically the executive director of the commission, which has its first meeting scheduled for Nov. 7. Orr is helping the commission plan its legal fight with the city. He’ll get his job overseeing the airport back if a judge decides the commission can run the airport.

Orr is still being paid his $211,000 annual salary from airport revenues. Charlotte city attorney Bob Hagemann has said Orr is entitled to the salary under the terms of the law the General Assembly passed.

A US Airways spokeswoman said after the conference call with Parker that the airline hasn’t changed its officially neutral stance about whether the city or the commission should run the airport.

After the conference call, US Airways sent a statement from Parker clarifying that the airline “has full confidence” in Cagle. Parker also said his comments “were in no way intended to take sides” in the ongoing dispute.

Edwin Peacock, Republican candidate for Charlotte mayor, has said he wouldn’t support bringing back Orr. Patrick Cannon, his Democratic opponent, has said he can’t discuss Orr’s employment status because Cannon is a council member and Orr and the city are in litigation.

Other US Airways executives said Wednesday that they haven’t had any operational problems at Charlotte Douglas, which is US Airways’ busiest hub, since Cagle took the reins.

“We’re really pleased with a lot of the work that’s going on, on the airfield. Our relationships with the city and airport have never been better,” said Robert Isom, US Airways’ chief operating officer. On Monday, US Airways announced it was adding four new nonstop flights to Europe from Charlotte next year, a major expansion of international service.

US Airways is Charlotte Douglas’ main carrier, with more than 600 daily departures and almost 90 percent of the airport’s daily flights.

The airline’s master lease at Charlotte Douglas, which gives US Airways 40 percent of the airport’s profits from concessions and helps keep the airline’s cost low, runs through 2016. Preliminary negotiations about renewing the lease had begun under Orr, and whoever controls the airport in the coming years will play a pivotal role in the lease negotiations.

Orr, 72, said earlier this month that he plans to retire by June 2015.

Profits down as merger plans proceed

US Airways executives said Wednesday that they’re forging ahead with planning for a merger with American Airlines, even as the government tries to block the deal.

The airline reported its third quarter profit slipped 12 percent, to $216 million, mostly due to higher income tax expenses compared to last year. Revenue was up 9.1 percent, to $3.9 billion, a record for US Airways.

“These outstanding results are occurring as our teams continue intensive integration planning work in preparation for our merger with American Airlines,” said Parker, who is slated to run the combined airline if the merger wins approval.

US Airways executives had expected their last quarterly earnings announcement three months ago to be the company’s finale as a standalone business, as they anticipated closing the merger last month.

But the U.S. Department of Justice unexpectedly sued to block the merger on antitrust grounds, saying it would stifle competition. A trial is due to start Nov. 25, in which a federal judge will decide whether to let the merger proceed.

US Airways said it incurred about $40 million worth of merger-related costs during the third quarter.

The effects of airlines keeping a tight check on capacity and strong travel demand were evident in US Airways’ quarterly results. The airline said 85.5 percent of seats were full on its planes during the third quarter, its highest-ever “load factor.”

US Airways also benefited from a slight drop in jet fuel prices, which fell almost 2 percent, to an average of $3.01 a gallon. The airline burned 392 million gallons of fuel during the quarter.

Charlotte’s unusually rainy and stormy weather hurt the airline’s performance this summer, US Airways said.

“Weather-related delays experienced in the month of July were some of the highest in our company’s history. In Charlotte, rain fell for 19 consecutive days from late June through mid-July,” the company said in a statement. On-time performance fell to 74 percent in July, but recovered to 88.3 percent in September.

US Airways stock fell 55 cents, or 2.5 percent, closing at $21.40 a share.

Portillo: 704-358-5041 On Twitter @ESPortillo
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