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After Orr’s departure, city hopes airport fight will end

Despite Thursday’s announcement that Jerry Orr will step down as executive director of the Charlotte Airport Commission, the fight over who controls the airport continues, and it’s unclear what the end game will be for the city of Charlotte and the General Assembly.

In its second meeting, the 13-member board of the commission announced that Brent Cagle, who is now running Charlotte Douglas International Airport for the city, would also have the same job for the airport commission. Orr said he would retire as of Dec. 31, after six months of being paid his full salary – even though he hasn’t been running the airport since July.

The city is currently in charge of the airport.

The commission was created by state legislators to run Charlotte Douglas, but it can’t exercise its powers until the Federal Aviation Administration grants it an operating certificate. The city has sued to stop that from happening.

Neither the FAA nor a Superior Court judge appear anxious to make a decision as to who should run the airport.

Charlotte City Attorney Bob Hagemann said Friday there is no scheduled court date to decide the case. He said he expects both sides to try to schedule a time for February or March.

When asked Friday about whether there could be a compromise to settle the issue, Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee said: “Court cases get settled all the time.

“I think there is a lot of interest to find a win-win solution, which is obviously challenging based on the path that has been followed,” Carlee said. “Discussing what the different options are publicly – I don't think that's helpful.”

Republican state Sen. Bob Rucho, who sponsored the legislation that created the commission, didn’t return phone calls from the Observer Friday.

Robert Stolz, chairman of the airport commission, said Thursday he believes the commission’s role should be as a broker between the city and the General Assembly to find common ground.

Since the commission was created in July, the city has been successful so far in its legal challenges to stop it.

Thursday’s announcement that Cagle would run the commission was another victory for the city. Orr had angered some City Council members with his advocacy for an authority or commission to run Charlotte Douglas, and many elected officials were adamant that he not be allowed to return.

But despite its winning streak, it’s possible the city could still lose in court – and lose control of the airport.

It appears that City Council members are unanimous in wanting the city to control the airport and have the aviation director report to the city manager.

Some council members said they discussed briefly a proposal that Orr be allowed to return to the airport as a consultant for two years. But that idea was shot down. And now – with Orr’s retirement – that appears completely off the table.

In closed session meetings, council members have discussed the possibility of creating new levels of oversight or supervision to ensure the airport is running as intended.

As the fight over who would control Charlotte Douglas began in the early months of 2013, advocates for airport independence cited a handful of concerns: that the city was planning to siphon off airport revenue for city projects, including the streetcar; that airport security should be handled internally, rather than by Charlotte Mecklenburg Police; and that the airport was paying too much for city services such as legal fees, human resources and accounting.

A consultant hired by the city, Bob Hazel, said the airport might need to examine its pay structure to remain competitive.

City officials have said they never intended to use airport revenue for projects. In addition, federal law forbids that practice, known as “revenue diversion.”

But there could be a willingness to add another level of checks and balances to ensure that doesn’t happen.

The city is making changes to airport security in response to critics who have said CMPD is too costly. Cagle said Thursday the airport will divide security and safety functions between CMPD and airport employees, and that they are close to having a memorandum of understanding.

Mayor Patrick Cannon, a Democrat, has said he hopes to reach a deal. Unlike his predecessor, Patsy Kinsey, he has been less combative in his public statements about fighting with the legislature over the airport.

Republican state Rep. Ruth Samuelson, who supports having the commission run the airport, said Friday she thinks the commission will prevail.

“I still think its going to end up that we’re going to have something like we’ve currently got,” Samuelson said. “It’s going to cool off and people are going to realize that what we passed was actually a pretty good solution because it had input from both sides.”

Carlee said Cagle has done an excellent job of running Charlotte Douglas.

Cagle has said a new international concourse with 18 to 22 gates could be built as early as 2014. Orr first proposed the new concourse, which would be built on the site of the rental car lots.

“I think Brent and the entire team have done a really good job,” Carlee said. “The team leading it is the team that Jerry hired and mentored.”

Charlotte is now the second busiest hub for the new American Airlines. The airline has said it expects to expand in Charlotte. It recently announced four new seasonal European destinations from the Queen City, starting in the spring.

Staff writers Jim Morrill and Ely Portillo contributed

Harrison: 704-358-5160
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