Push to take Charlotte airport control from city gains new life

An American Eagle jet taxis to the terminal at Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
An American Eagle jet taxis to the terminal at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte’s airport could be heading into more political turbulence: Members of an oversight board have asked Gov. Pat McCrory and legislative leaders to change the makeup of the commission set up to run the airport, which could open the door to ending Charlotte City Council’s control.

And Republican Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews, who engineered the commission’s 2013 creation, said he’ll explore the possibility of new legislation. Rucho also accused U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, Charlotte’s former mayor, of blocking the commission from receiving the federal approval it needs.

The airport’s governance has now been in limbo for more than two years, even as the airport pushes ahead with billions of dollars worth of construction projects.

The legislature created a 13-member commission to operate Charlotte Douglas International Airport, but the commission has so far been blocked from actually using any of its powers. The Federal Aviation Administration hasn’t approved transferring the airport’s operating certificate to the commission, and the commission is forbidden by a judge from operating until it gets the certificate.

Three members of a separate airport oversight committee created by the legislature, including businessman Felix Sabates, wrote in their letter that the seven city-appointed members of the Charlotte Airport Commission “have refused to carry out or misunderstood their duties” under the act that created the commission.

“The Commission, in its present form, is just not working,” Sabates, Muriel Sheubrooks and Ken Walker wrote the governor, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore. “It appears that the City’s appointees have decided to put the political wishes of the City officials who appointed them over their duties to the commission.”

The seven city appointees currently make up a majority of the 13-member commission. If the makeup were changed to end that majority – which the oversight group suggested would “probably” be necessary – the commission could fight more vigorously to run the airport. So far, the group has deadlocked on crucial issues such as whether to direct their lawyers to fight for the commission’s existence.

The oversight committee’s complaints threaten to resurrect a battle begun in 2013 when lawmakers sought to transfer control of the airport from the city to first an authority and then a commission.

The commission’s chairman, Charlotte businessman Robert Stolz, denied the city-appointed representatives have intentionally blocked the commission. Stolz, a city appointee, said the group has been put in an impossible situation by lawmakers.

“This entire process is flawed,” said Stolz, who said the oversight group told him about the letter. “It’s kind of like we were given the keys to the car, but we don’t have a license to drive it.”

Stolz said the role of the separate oversight group, which sent the letter, was never clear.

“I felt bad for them. They never got a charge from anybody on what they were supposed to be doing,” said Stolz.

Charlotte City Attorney Bob Hagemann said he and City Council members had received the letter.

When asked whether the city’s appointees have worked to thwart the commission, Hagemann said, “I think that City Council’s position as to who should run the airport has been clear from the beginning.”

He added that the commission is under an injunction from running the airport until the FAA determines who should operate Charlotte Douglas, a position Stolz echoed.

“All we can do as a commission is wait for the FAA to rule,” said Stolz.

Rucho blamed the city for the impasse.

“The city of Charlotte appears to be disrupting the commission from doing its job,” he said Wednesday.

Rucho also blamed Foxx for the FAA’s failure to transfer the airport’s operating certificate to the commission.

“The only thing stopping it now is that Foxx is stonewalling it,” he said. A spokesman for Foxx couldn’t immediately be reached.

Staff writer Steve Harrison contributed.

Who runs Charlotte’s airport?

Charlotte City Council remains in control of the airport, which is an independently funded city department. Interim Aviation Director Brent Cagle reports to City Manager Ron Carlee. The legislature created the Charlotte Airport Commission, a 13-member body with seven members appointed by the city and six by Mecklenburg and surrounding counties, to take control in July 2013, over the city’s objections. But although the commission has met several times, it has been blocked from actually running the airport, and deadlocked in some of its crucial votes.

A judge ruled that the commission can’t run the airport until the Federal Aviation Administration decides who should be in charge. The FAA hasn’t said when, or if, it will make a ruling.

Ely Portillo