One of the most prominent business leaders advocating taking the airport from the city’s control said Thursday he no longer cares who runs it as long as costs are kept low for the airlines.
Johnny Harris, one of the city’s most influential real estate developers and a key architect of growth in the SouthPark area, was among the business leaders to warn that the city shouldn’t exert more direct control over Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
Lawmakers named him to an oversight panel created to monitor the work of the 13-member commission they formed in July 2013 to take control of the airport.
But in a speech to more than 200 accountants at the Ritz-Carlton hotel uptown on Thursday, Harris said who runs the airport isn’t as important as keeping costs low for American Airlines, its major carrier. The airline has merged with US Airways and operates its second-largest hub in Charlotte.
“I really don’t care anymore as long as whoever operates the airport understands the importance of staying the lowest-cost major airport in this country,” he said.
Control of the airport remains unresolved.
In October, Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin issued a permanent injunction preventing the commission from running the airport unless it receives permission from the Federal Aviation Administration. In a bureaucratic twist, the FAA has said it won’t issue such a ruling unless the city of Charlotte asks it to examine the issue. And the city, which has doggedly fought the commission, isn’t likely to do so, instead leaving the commission in limbo.
“We’re not a commission, we’re a crowd of folks sitting around,” Cameron Harris, a commissioner from Charlotte and Johnny Harris’ brother, said at a meeting in July.
The deadline for either side to file an appeal to Ervin’s ruling is Friday. No appeals were filed by Thursday afternoon.
The commission hasn’t scheduled any meetings since late September, when the group last met. They deadlocked on how to direct their lawyers, and were unable to reach a decision.
Stan Campbell, the former Charlotte City Council member who worked with the legislature on proposed changes at the airport, said he doesn’t know of any new plans to address control of the airport in the General Assembly.
The issue is before the FAA, which hasn’t taken any action under the leadership of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, the former Charlotte mayor, he said.
“We had the fight, and now it’s stuck in D.C.,” Campbell said.
Proponents of transferring control of the airport said they were acting on concerns from business leaders who felt financial challenges might tempt the City Council to dip into the airport’s income stream.
They said city officials were eager to take money from the airport for pet projects such as an extension of the east-west streetcar line.
An influential president of the Quail Hollow Club and former chairman of the Charlotte Chamber board, Harris said Thursday that he was among those who believed city leaders would divert the airport’s money.
Giving the keynote address at accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman’s annual tax briefing seminar, he said the airport is critical to the city’s future success. It must stay financially independent from the city’s budget considerations and challenges.
“If you don’t have to vote for a tax increase because you can take a couple hundred millions dollars from the airport, you’ll do it every time if you’re an elected official,” Harris said.
City officials have said they weren’t trying to divert airport money. City Manager Ron Carlee said Thursday in an interview that such diversions are against FAA rules.
The city conducted audits last year into such allegations, he said. Those probes uncovered loans from the airport to the city that weren’t paid back, required FAA reports that had been filed incorrectly, and leases for airport grounds that misstated the amount of land under lease.
Money owed the airport has been paid back, Carlee said.
“You can’t divert (airport) revenue and we won’t divert airport revenue, certainly not on my watch,” he said.
City officials have voiced confidence in Brent Cagle, an Orr protege who has been running the airport since the longtime airport chief resigned or was fired in July 2013.
Over the next five years, Cagle plans to oversee more than $1 billion worth of construction, and has raised the airport’s budget 8 percent for the coming year to pay for more maintenance and hire more staff.
Campbell, the former City Council member, said Harris’ comments were a recognition that the intermodal shipping facility at the airport has moved forward, spurring development in the surrounding area.
“It’s business, not politics,” Campbell said. “I’m glad that somebody who cares as much about Charlotte as he does is still working out there.”
American Airlines reiterated its position on the issue Thursday.
“We don’t really care who governs the airport as long as it’s done cost effectively and efficiently as it’s been done in the past,” said Katie Cody, a spokeswoman for the airline.
In other comments, Harris:
• Expressed unease about American Airlines’ master lease at the airport, which runs through 2016. “I’m not sure who’s going to renegotiate that lease. I’m a little concerned about that.”
• Urged state lawmakers to extend a cap onfuel sales taxes
that’s set to expire in 2016. Airlines are urging lawmakers to extend the cap or exempt airlines from the tax to keep the state competitive with other states such as South Carolina and Texas where total exemptions are already in place.
• Declared that the city needs to move forward quickly with redeveloping land around the airport. The city ownshundreds of acres
and has been buying more, and thousands of additional acres sit between Interstate 485 and the Catawba River.
He said having the land developed could help the city land the next major corporate relocation.
In December, Harris resigned his position on the oversight committee that was supposed to monitor the commission. Harris said his resignation was due to a conflict of interest.
During Thursday’s speech at the Ritz, Harris said his firm represents companies with a stake in potential development of land near the airport.
Carlee said the city understands the business community’s concerns about the airport, and is committed to keeping American’s costs there low. He added that the city is hiring new staff to boost its efforts to develop the area around the airport.
Asked if he foresees any end to the standoff over control of the airport, he replied: “I hope there is sooner rather than later. It’s sort of a cloud around the airport and we need to get it resolved so we can move forward in a positive way.”
Staff writers Ely Portillo and Rick Rothacker contributed.