Charlotte Airport Battle

Charlotte asks FAA to rule in its favor in airport dispute

The city of Charlotte asked the Federal Aviation Administration on Friday to make a ruling that would further cement the city’s control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

The city’s letter was sent after both sides in the airport struggle – the city and the state – declined this week to appeal an Oct. 13 decision by a Superior Court judge in the nearly 2-year-old airport fight.

That decision barred the Charlotte Airport Commission from running the airport without the FAA’s permission, which was a win for the city. But Judge Robert Ervin left open the possibility of the city losing control, saying the federal government could intervene and put the commission in charge.

The Democrat-controlled Charlotte City Council believes the FAA, under the Democratic administration of President Barack Obama, will allow the council to keep running Charlotte Douglas.

Former Mayor Anthony Foxx, a Democrat, is secretary of transportation, which oversees the FAA. As mayor, he vigorously opposed efforts to take the airport.

The Republican-controlled General Assembly created the commission last year.

“My hope is that we will soon have a satisfactory end to this torturous experience,” said Mayor Pro Tem Michael Barnes, a Democrat. “I always thought this was an unnecessary use of time and money.”

Barnes said the city has managed the airport well since former aviation director Jerry Orr left in the summer of 2013.

But even if the FAA rules in favor of the city, as expected, the issue would not be completely over.

It’s possible that a Republican president could be elected in 2016. A new Republican president could make an appointment to the Department of Transportation who believes the commission – not the city – should run the airport. The FAA could then transfer control of the airport to the commission.

Ervin’s October ruling leaves that scenario a possibility.

Unless the General Assembly repeals the bill that created the 13-member commission, it will still exist, on paper at least.

Charlotte City Attorney Bob Hagemann was asked Friday whether, if the FAA rules in the city’s favor, the General Assembly should repeal the commission bill. That would officially kill the 13-member board.

“That’s a political, not a legal question,” Hagemann said, declining to answer.

But there are signs that some of the strong backers of a commission-run airport are losing interest.

Real estate developer Johnny Harris, among the most prominent business leaders who have advocated taking the airport from the city’s control, told a business crowd Thursday that he no longer cares who runs it as long as costs are kept low for the airlines.

State Sen. Bob Rucho, a Republican from Matthews, helped lead the charge in the General Assembly to create the commission. He said Friday that he didn’t know of any plans for an appeal or for any additional legislative efforts on the issue next session.

He reiterated his belief that the judge’s Oct. 13 ruling was a win for the commission. The ruling upheld the commission’s right to run the airport, he said. And he believes state law requires the city to help the commission get the FAA certification necessary to take charge.

“I would just expect the city of Charlotte to follow the law that was passed and found to be constitutional,” he said. “I would expect the FAA to act in expedient manner to give the airport commission, an agency of the city which was validated in the judge’s decision, the necessary certification and get this thing moving forward.”

Charlotte Airport Commission Chairman Robert Stolz called on political leaders to resolve the standoff.

“As I’ve said now for more than a year, the good people on this commission have been put in an untenable situation,” he said. “We are now in complete no-man’s land.”

Attorney Martin Brackett, who represents the commission, said the city has not informed him of its plans. The commission has not appealed the judge’s ruling and has no plans to do so, he said.

Brackett said the commission sent a request to the FAA last year asking the agency to rule that the new panel could run the airport under the facility’s existing operating certificate, or if necessary, allow it to run the airport under a new certificate.

If the city has made its own request, “it looks like the ball is in the FAA’s court,” Brackett said. The commission has no meetings scheduled, but could call a session if necessary, he said.

The FAA said it had received the city’s request.

The City Council met in closed session about the airport decision Monday.