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Jerry Orr should lose his new airport job

There’s a lot of clutter surrounding the question of who should be in charge at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Some of that is philosophical, such as debate about whether the airport is best served by a regional or city governance. Some of it is personal – is Jerry Orr indispensable to the airport’s success?

We’re still waiting on the courts to cut through that clutter and decide if the state has the legal authority to transfer control of Charlotte Douglas to an independent commission. But until that ruling comes, at least one thing remains very clear: Jerry Orr is getting $211,000 annually – one of the largest public salaries in the city – to run an airport he’s not running.

That’s an unnecessary expense. At its meeting tonight, the airport commission should dismiss Orr until the courts provide clarity or the city and state agree to a governance structure.

How did we come to pay so much for so little? When N.C. lawmakers passed a bill this year taking Charlotte Douglas away from the city, they also included language installing Orr as director of the new commission. The city sued, but only to contest the part of the legislation that allowed the commission to take over the airport’s daily operations. That’s what Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin is mulling now.

What the city didn’t contest was the state’s right to form a commission or name its executive director. Charlotte also decided it would abide by the state’s mandate that Orr be paid the same serving as the commission’s executive director as he had as airport director. Meanwhile, city officials promoted Brent Cagle to airport director because Orr, thanks to the legislation, had a different job. So – one airport director, two directors’ salaries.

The legislation, however, doesn’t mandate how long Orr must remain in his new job. The commission can fire him anytime and hire a new director. Or it can fire Orr and hire no director at all. Given that the position currently has no authority over airport operations, that’s the most responsible route to take.

Of course, that would leave a long-time successful employee without a paycheck. But that’s a risk Orr took when he aligned himself with state lawmakers who wanted to wrest the airport from Charlotte. It’s clear that he and city officials disagreed about his autonomy in running the airport, but Orr’s solution was to go for broke and change his bosses. The city shouldn’t pay for that gamble.

A larger question remains: Is Charlotte Douglas better off with Orr in charge? Orr’s supporters argue, rightly, that he has successfully navigated the airport through decades of Charlotte growth. Those supporters include U.S. Airways – now American Airlines – which hasn’t been shy in praising how Orr has run its critical Charlotte hub.

But Orr also has had missteps, and thus far, Cagle has shown himself very capable of living up to his promotion. American Airlines isn’t complaining, and so long as Charlotte Douglas continues to keep costs low for carriers, we suspect American will be just fine with whomever is in charge.

For now, that’s Cagle and the city. Even if Judge Erwin rules against Charlotte early next year, city officials will appeal to hold onto the airport. That could take more than two years to resolve, city attorney Bob Hagemann told the Observer’s editorial board Wednesday. The courts would likely keep the current management in place until a final ruling arrives, Hagemann said.

Should that decision eventually validate the state’s position, the commission can decide to bring Orr back to run Charlotte Douglas. But there’s no need to pay for two airport directors until then.

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The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

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