Charlotte airport to remain under interim leadership

Charlotte airport to remain under interim leadership


by RICK ROTHACKER / The Charlotte Observer

Posted on July 26, 2013 at 5:28 PM

Updated Friday, Jul 26 at 6:05 PM

Charlotte Douglas International Airport will for now remain under the control of the interim aviation director, Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee said at a news conference Friday afternoon.

Capping a six-month political brawl, lawmakers early Friday passed a law that shifts control of the airport from the city to a 13-member commission and places Jerry Orr back at the helm of the world’s sixth-busiest airport by takeoffs and landings. But the city of Charlotte has vowed to challenge the law after winning a temporary restraining order against similar legislation passed last week creating an authority to run the airport.

Carlee called the law “extremely complex” and said it would be premature for him to talk about the city’s options.

“The city is not making rash judgments about what it does or does not do,” he said. “…We will consider all of the options and evaluate them.”

Mayor Patsy Kinsey has called a special meeting for 4:30 p.m. Monday, Carlee said.

Orr earlier Friday said he’s pleased that a new law passed by the General Assembly puts him back in charge at Charlotte’s airport, but he’ll let the legal process play out before going back to work.

“It’ll take what time it takes,” Orr, the longtime aviation director who was ousted last week, said after a news conference Friday afternoon. “We just want an orderly transition.”

Orr’s lawyer, former Charlotte mayor Richard Vinroot, said at the news conference that he wasn’t sure if the restraining order would affect the new commission but he planned to be in court for a hearing scheduled on Thursday.

Orr, 72, said he didn’t plan to go to the airport on Friday, saying “the legal process has to take its course.”

Orr lost his position last Thursday on a roller-coaster day that saw the General Assembly pass a bill creating a new authority, only to have it blocked in a Charlotte courtroom soon after. City officials said Orr resigned, anticipating the creation of the new authority, while Orr’s attorney, former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot, said he was fired.

Carlee last week named Cagle interim aviation director. He was formerly an assistant airport director overseeing finance at Charlotte Douglas.

“There’s been no change at this time,” Carlee said of the airport’s leadership. He declined to comment about the legislation.

At the news conference, Carlee criticized state lawmakers who have made comments critical of the airport’s interim leadership in recent days.

“The airport is being led by a team hired and trained by Jerry Orr,” Carlee said. “…I have the full confidence in the staff that Jerry Orr hired.”

Vinroot, in an interview Friday, said “we simply don’t know enough yet” about whether Orr was now the airport’s leader again.

“We’re certainly not going to be riding in like MacArthur,” Vinroot said. “There is a court order with regard to the previous legislation. We don’t know if that is in effect or not, to be honest.”

Vinroot said he would like to talk to City Attorney Bob Hagemann to “figure out the best approach.” A hearing on the restraining order issued last week is scheduled for Thursday, a court official said.

In an interview, Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Mecklenburg County Republican who sponsored the airport legislation, said Orr “technically should be reinstated.”

“My guess is they’re all trying to work together and make this a smooth transition,” she said. “My goal all along is, ‘How do we ensure the long-term success of the airport with as little instability as possible.’”

The Federal Aviation Administration said it is reviewing the legislation. The FAA must approve all transfers to ensure the new operator has the expertise to run the facility, can comply with safety regulations and meet other obligations, the agency said.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, the former Charlotte mayor whose department includes the FAA, has recused himself of all matters related to Charlotte.

The airport’s largest carrier, US Airways, declined to comment on Orr’s status and the new legislation.

Orr has worked for the airport since 1975. He has been aviation director since 1989 and is widely respected by those in the aviation industry. A taciturn manager with a dry sense of humor, he is often credited with growing Charlotte Douglas from a regional airport to a major US Airways hub with more than 700 flights a day, by keeping costs extremely low.

Asked about his time off from the job, Orr said: “Obviously, it’s not my comfort zone.”

The North Carolina legislature, plowing into the wee hours and past the objections of Democrats, gave final approval early Friday to a measure creating the Charlotte airport commission.

“With the passage of this bill, we build on the unprecedented success that leaders of Charlotte Douglas International Airport have enjoyed thus far,” House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said in a statement. “Everyone involved is interested in ensuring the long-term success of the airport, and I believe this bill accomplishes that goal.”

Staff Writer Bruce Henderson contributed.

City's full statement on airport bill:

"Yesterday, the General Assembly finally realized that their authority proposal was fatally flawed and repealed it early this morning. Unfortunately, they didn’t stop there and created a new last-minute proposal that once again follows a unilateral path without regard to the 78 years of expertise held by the City of Charlotte in managing Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

The new bill is extremely complex; therefore, the City is not making rash judgments about what it does or does not do.  We are studying the bill thoroughly and examining the full range of options open to the City.  It is premature to discuss these options or what recommendations I may make to the Mayor and Council.

With regard to operations at the airport, Brent Cagle will remain in his role as Interim Aviation Director for now.  I am disappointed that members of the General Assembly have made disparaging statements about the airport’s leadership, especially since the airport is being led by a team hired and trained by Jerry Orr.  The most critical role of a leader is to ensure that continuity of operations extends beyond a single person.  I have full confidence in the staff that Jerry Orr hired.

To all of the City employees that work at the airport, I want to express appreciation and empathy for the uncertainty they have faced throughout this legislative ordeal.  There should be no mistake:  the airport performs as well as it does because of the dedicated work of each and every City employee who has committed him or herself to the highest levels of customer service and efficient operations. As the Mayor said at the last Council meeting, she and the Council stand behind our employees and will protect the employees’ interests.

Finally, I want to again reassure the traveling public and everyone associated with the airport that the City is committed ensuring continued operations at the airport, sustaining Charlotte as the best-value hub airport in the U.S. Airways/American system.  

We are undaunted by the General Assembly’s interference with airport operations and we will do all that we can to mitigate the impacts of the legislation and to ensure stability at Charlotte-Douglas."