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No end in sight for Charlotte airport commission fight

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TODD SUMLIN - tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com
An American Eagle jet is unloaded, foreground as US Airways and American Airlines jets taxi to the runway for takeoff at Charlotte Douglas International Airport Thursday, January 3, 2013. __TODD SUMLIN - tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com

How much longer will the fight over who should run Charlotte Douglas International Airport continue? There was no clear answer Thursday, as the Charlotte Airport Commission met again despite not having the power to run the airport.

It’s been 18 months since the idea of creating an independent authority to run Charlotte Douglas first surfaced, and the issue remains tied up in court. It’s still uncertain whether City Council or the new commission will end up in charge of the airport.

“We’re back to the sitting and waiting phase right now,” commission Chairman Robert Stolz said.

Airport officials also updated the commission on construction at the airport. Major projects, such as an eight-lane road in front of the terminal and a new concourse north of Concourse A, are expected to continue for the next five years.

Some members expressed frustration over the lack of clarity over the commission’s status.

“I don’t mind coming to the meetings, but I don’t want to come for nothing,” James Allen Lee, a commissioner from Union County, said.

“We’re not a commission, we’re a crowd of folks sitting around,” Cameron Harris, a commissioner from Charlotte, said.

The N.C. General Assembly created the 13-member commission in July 2013. Charlotte sued to block the group. A judge issued an injunction barring the commission from running Charlotte Douglas. The Federal Aviation Administration hasn’t said whether the commission should be allowed to run the airport or not, and there aren’t any court hearings scheduled in the city’s legal case.

The legislature passed a second bill this summer designed to answer the FAA’s questions about the commission and spur a decision. Martin Brackett, the commission’s attorney, gave the commission an update on the bill Thursday.

“This part is impossible to explain in layman’s terms,” said Brackett at one point, while going through the bill line-by-line. The legislature passed the bill to clarify to the FAA that Charlotte would continue to own the airport and that the commission would be an agency of the city government, not a special district.

Airport officials also cautioned travelers to be patient during the massive construction boom that’s expected to last at least five more years. A plan to add five lanes in front of the terminal, for a total of eight, will start in the spring and last for about four years, officials said.

“We are going through some growing pains,” said interim Aviation Director Brent Cagle, referring to the delays and congestion that’s accompanied the new parking deck and roadway construction. A new hourly parking deck is expected to open in November, adding 4,000 public spaces in front of the terminal and relieving some of the congestion.

Cagle said parking has been particularly tight this summer, with occupancy rates at the airport’s lots running from a low of about 80 percent on Sundays to as high as 98 percent on busy days. A lot is basically full at about 90 percent, Cagle said, which is when it becomes difficult to find a spot.

The construction projects will benefit travelers by making it easier to access the terminal, officials said.

“While it will be a construction zone for four years, our plan is to incrementally add capacity as we go,” said interim Deputy Aviation Director Jack Christine.

Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter: @ESPortillo
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