Charlotte Airport Battle

Charlotte airport spending climbs under new leadership

Under former Aviation Director Jerry Orr, Charlotte Douglas International Airport was famous for its penny-pinching, keeping costs to a minimum in order to attract airlines to a cheap airport in a city they might have otherwise overlooked.

Now, under interim Aviation Director Brent Cagle, Charlotte Douglas is showing a willingness to spend more freely. The airport’s proposed $129 million budget for fiscal year 2015 is up 8 percent from fiscal 2014, with higher spending to bolster security, replace shuttle buses, pay for more janitorial services, renovate the terminal and hire more than 150 full-time workers.

“Anyone who’s ridden our buses lately has probably seen a ripped seat or two,” said Cagle, speaking at Thursday’s Charlotte Airport Commission meeting. “There’s been some deferred maintenance. We need to reinvest in the facility.”

For passengers, the increased spending could mean a snazzier, cleaner terminal. The airport is buying new shuttle buses to replace its aging fleet, which has caused longer waits for passengers trying to get to their cars: Cagle said 29 of the airport’s 59 shuttle buses weren’t working last week.

For about 150 shuttle drivers and others who have been working as temps without benefits, it means a $20,000 increase to their wages and benefits.

But for airlines, the increased spending means a higher cost of doing business at Charlotte Douglas. The airport projects Charlotte’s cost-per-enplaned passenger – a measure of how much it costs the airlines to fly from an airport – will rise 8 percent in fiscal 2015.

That will leave the cost-per-enplanement at Charlotte Douglas at $1.35, still the lowest for any large hub airport in the nation. That’s still far below the national average of $10.93, airport officials said.

American Airlines – by far the airport’s biggest customer, accounting for more than 90 percent of daily flights – supports Cagle’s budget request.

“Charlotte is American’s second largest hub and we welcome any improvements that make Charlotte Douglas a better travel experience for our customers,” said spokesman Davien Anderson. Orr, the former aviation director, couldn’t be reached Friday.

Charlotte Douglas is an independently funded city department. The airport doesn’t receive any local tax money for its operations, instead generating funds from airline landing fees, parking, terminal concessions and federal grants.

Some members of the airport commission were skeptical of the higher spending in Cagle’s budget presentation.

“I hope next year is not an 8 percent increase,” said Joe Carpenter, a Gaston County commissioner who serves on the airport board. Another commissioner asked Cagle to reassure him that there are no “$1,000 hammers” in the airport’s budget.

For now, however, the commission is blocked by a judge from actually running the airport, amid a legal battle between the city and state for control of Charlotte Douglas. The airport remains under city control, reporting to City Manager Ron Carlee and the Charlotte City Council. Cagle’s presentation to the airport commission was informational only.

Charlotte grew to be a major hub because US Airways and its predecessors were attracted by its low costs. On its own, the city doesn’t have a large enough local market to support the 700 or so flights a day that take off from Charlotte. More than three quarters of the airport’s passengers are connecting from one flight to another, mostly on American Airlines.

The number of passengers using Charlotte Douglas has increased sharply, climbing more than 70 percent in the past decade to top 43.5 million last year.

Here’s some of what the increased spending at the airport covers:

Cagle said Charlotte Douglas is still committed to its low-cost roots, despite the increased budget this year. He said all of the increased spending is supported by the airlines.

“We grow based on demand,” Cagle said. “We don’t build it and hope they’ll come.”

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