CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- On average, a plane takes off or lands every 39 seconds at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.
That’s something to see, because when it comes to takeoffs and landings, Charlotte is the sixth busiest airport in the world, busier than any airport in Europe or Asia.
For perspective on why Charlotte got so busy, how it became a hub, and where it could go from here, we put together the video above, and talked to Shawn Dorsch, the chair of Charlotte’s Airport Advisory Committee, and Fernando Aguirre, Chiquita’s former CEO, who cited the airport as a big reason why his company moved its headquarters from Cincinnati to Charlotte:
NBC Charlotte: How did Charlotte’s airport get so busy?
Shawn Dorsch: I think there’s two key things that have happened. The first was the decision by Charlotte to build a hub for Piedmont Airlines. A lot of people don’t realize the hub we have today could have been in Winston-Salem, it could have been in Greensboro, those communities were not willing to expand their airports, so during the time of Mayor [John] Belk, we were willing to do that, we did.
(Piedmont put its hub here in 1979, and the terminal in use today opened in 1982. US Airways, then US Air, bought Piedmont in 1987.)
Dorsch: Following on that, we’ve been extremely fortunate to have had an airport director like Jerry Orr who has run things in an extremely frugal manner, and assured that Charlotte is, by a very wide margin, the lowest cost place to operate a hub in North America. And it’s that low cost that has enabled US Airways to be in a very strong financial position, and that has contributed to their ability to make their bid for American Airlines. It’s one of the really untold stories. Charlotte is where the airline has the majority of their flights, it’s where they make most of their money, even though it’s not the headquarters of the airline, it’s really the heart of US Airways. And that has provided the launch pad for the airline to make their bid for American Airlines.
NBC Charlotte: How does Jerry Orr keep those costs down?
Dorsch: Everything that Jerry does is business focused. Jerry Orr, although he is a city employee, he’s really a businessman. And he runs the airport like a business. And so everything is about doing everything in a manner that’s the lowest cost possible and providing the highest level of service. He’s created an entire culture that’s permeated every level of the organization to be very business focused, very focused on customer service, and using the funds that are available in a very frugal manner.
NBC Charlotte: What about the location?
Dorsch: Charlotte has tremendous geographical advantages. We are more centrally located to where the majority of the population lives in the United States than either Dallas or Atlanta. I personally think that both Dallas and Charlotte are going to do very well out of the merger. But I think the real story is Charlotte versus Atlanta. What’s going to happen when the largest airline in the world has a big hub in Charlotte? How is the new American Airlines going to compete with Delta in Atlanta? I think that’s going to be a whole ‘nother Charlotte-Atlanta competition if you will.
I believe that once the merger has happened, the number of flights through Charlotte will go up and I believe it’ll go up very dramatically. One of the number one reasons why corporations decide to move their business to Charlotte is because of the significant range of direct flights that we have here. And that was the number one reason that Chiquita Brands cited for selecting Charlotte. So if we have even more direct flights to even more international locations, I believe that’ll attract even more companies.
Fernando Aguirre: We were looking for a place that got us direct flights to two basic places: Europe and Central America, that’s where we have a lot of our business. When we came to Charlotte, we found Charlotte is one of the most cost efficient airports there is in the country, in fact, in the world. The plans that they have for the future are such that it would be very difficult for the airlines to change their minds, and make a significant change to Charlotte in the way that it happened to Cincinnati.
NBC Charlotte: What happened in Cincinnati?
Aguirre: Cincinnati at one point had a [around 500] flights a day, Charlotte is now higher than 700 flights a day, but Cincinnati was one of the most expensive airports to run for a number of different reasons.
(Today, Cincinnati has about 100 flights a day, after Delta cut back operations there.)
NBC Charlotte: So, what does a company look at in an airport?
Aguirre: First of all, you’re looking for cost efficiency. Businesses have to look at that. Secondly, you’re looking for the very best most direct routes. You end up flying two or three times to get to a certain point, that’s not good for business and not good for you, you end up wasting a lot of time, a lot of hours in the air.
Dorsch: For me, this shows in many ways that the airport is the primary driver of economic growth in our region.
NBC Charlotte: What about fares? Some analysts have predicted that ticket prices could go up by ten percent after the merger is complete.
Dorsch: After the merger occurs, there’s going to be three major airlines in the United States: American Airlines, Delta and United. And those three airlines provide tremendous competition between one another for the consumer. Believe it or not, the average fares here in Charlotte are really not out of line with fares you could get in other communities. In fact, in many ways, you’ve got cheaper air service to a lot of cities than other cities do. Plus you have the range of direct flight options. So consumers and businesspeople benefit from the ability to take direct flights because it saves people time. They don’t have to take as many days off for vacation, because they don’t have to change airports.
NBC Charlotte: So how will Charlotte Douglas grow in the future?
Dorsch: I think Charlotte is wonderfully positioned for vast growth. The airspace above us, crowded as it is, is relatively empty, compared to Atlanta and the Northeast. You have more airports [up there]. You have LaGuardia and JFK, Philadelphia, BWI, you have all these large airports that are really close to one another. And so you have much more crowded airspace. Instead of us having seven or eight really big airports, we have one.
In the Northeast, airports like LaGuardia, JFK they’re very constrained geographically. They can’t undertake the scale and scope of expansion that we can. Atlanta, they built a new runway a couple of years before we did. And their runway was many many times more expensive than ours was. More than five times more expensive.
NBC Charlotte: What about the fourth parallel runway?
Dorsch: As many people know, the fourth parallel runway was announced, I think the merger, if anything, speeds up the development of that runway, that runway of course will be a 12,000 foot runway, and not only will it give us more capacity, as far as takeoffs and landings, it’ll also expand the number of places that aircraft can fly to from Charlotte. With a 12,000 foot runway, we’ll be able to launch 747s direct non-stop to Tokyo. And so I believe the merger will be able to bring direct flights to Asia. That’s the only part of the world we don’t have direct flights to, and that’ll just continue to expand the opportunities that people can go to from Charlotte.
One thing Jerry Orr is fond of saying is two miles of highway will take you two miles. Two miles of runway will take you anywhere in the world.