CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jerry Orr lost his job more than three months ago, but Charlotte’s longtime aviation director said he’s working full time planning a new, independent airport commission, and still talking with US Airways, the airport’s biggest tenant.
Orr, who ran the airport from 1989 until July, is at the center of the dispute over whether the city or the independent commission should run Charlotte Douglas International Airport. US Airways CEO Doug Parker said last week that he wants to see Orr back in charge.
“I’m ready to go back to work” at Charlotte Douglas, said Orr, wearing a black windbreaker emblazoned with the airport’s logo. His office in the airport’s administrative wing remains unchanged. “I’ve been ready to go back to work since July the 19th.”
But for now at least, Orr is an airport director without an airport.
Orr, a famously taciturn official fond of quoting Clint Eastwood movies, lost his job July 18 after the General Assembly passed a bill creating an airport authority. Orr and city officials still disagree about whether he resigned or was fired.
The political fight over who should be in charge at Charlotte Douglas – the city or a commission – grew from rumors in January to a full-blown battle in Raleigh in a matter of weeks. The dispute pitted Mecklenburg’s Republican legislators against local Democrats and burned bridges between the city government in Charlotte and the state. It took up months of legislators’ time and political capital and is now tied up in court.
The city has sued to block the commission, and a judge issued a temporary injunction to halt its implementation. Since Orr is executive director of the commission, he will get his job back if the judge allows the commission to take charge of the airport.
On one side, city leaders and Democratic state lawmakers called the airport authority push a naked power grab and an affront to Charlotte. Both mayoral candidates in the Nov. 5 election say they want to continue the fight to keep the airport under city control, which would preclude Orr’s return.
On the other side Orr, some local business leaders and Republican state lawmakers said the airport must be separated from city oversight to protect it from political meddling and alleged attempts to siphon off airport money for other purposes. Orr has some high-profile allies: He and the commission are being represented by former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot in the legal fight.
And while US Airways has said it remains officially neutral on the question of who should run the airport, the airline has had a hand in governance at its biggest hub. Parker, the CEO, said earlier this year he expects a voice in picking Orr’s successor, which the city agreed to. Before the commission issue became public, a US Airways executive forwarded a draft of an authority bill to a supporter, the company has said.
Orr said in an interview Thursday that the airport needs an end to the “uncertainty and conflict.” It’s bad for business, he said.
Bond ratings agencies agree with Orr on that. A Moody’s analyst said earlier this year that if “political winds” interfere with the airport’s operation too much, its bond ratings could take a hit.
Orr at the center
Restoring Orr to his office was one of the main goals of legislators who passed a bill to create the new commission. State Sen. Bob Rucho, a Mecklenburg Republican, called Orr “the only person who knows how to run the airport.”
Orr and his former bosses in the city had disagreed before his removal. Tensions ran high over issues such as financial oversight at the airport and whether the airport provided adequate security and policing.
Advocates of keeping the airport under city control say Orr, 72, isn’t needed and that the airport is doing fine under interim aviation director Brent Cagle.
“There was an impression the airport would not succeed without one particular person,” said Charlotte City Council member LaWana Mayfield, a Democrat. “What we’ve learned is that the airport still runs very smoothly. You still see growth happening. We did not miss a beat.”
In the past few weeks, US Airways has announced plans to add four international flights at Charlotte Douglas, Frontier Airlines said it will start service at the airport and the airport unveiled a made-over Checkpoint E. Mayfield said those developments show the airport is moving forward without Orr.
“Well, I guess if you believe that, there’s no need for me to go back,” Orr said. Those initiatives were already underway when he was in charge, he added.
Orr told the Observer there are several reasons he needs to come back.
“I want to go back (and) get things on an even keel, get the succession established, get the commission established,” said Orr, a Charlotte native who started working at the airport in 1975. Orr has said he would retire by June 2015, after identifying a successor.
Orr also said he wants to make sure the airport’s new rail cargo transfer station gets up and running and begin work on a new, fourth parallel runway for Charlotte. Orr added that it’s important for him to be present for the negotiations with US Airways about a new master lease. The airline’s current master lease runs through 2016.
Lights still on
His assessment of the airport’s current management comes in a typical Orr quip: “I don’t know. They’ve kept the lights on.”
“There’s some things I would have done differently,” Orr said, but he declined to be specific. “I’m not going to criticize them, but just some things I read about that’s not exactly the way I would have done it.”
Orr is still collecting his $211,000 annual salary, which he is entitled to receive as executive director of the Charlotte Airport Commission under the law passed by the General Assembly. The commission’s 13 members, seven from Charlotte, one from Mecklenburg and five from surrounding counties, have been appointed.
A first meeting for the commission is set for Nov. 7, even though the commission is blocked from exercising most of its powers. Orr said the first meeting will be largely informational.
Keeping in touch
Orr said he remains in contact with US Airways. “Yeah, we stay in touch,” Orr said. “Mostly, it’s just communication.”
He declined to specify who he’s been in contact with, only that he talks with “a whole range of people.”
When asked whether he’s been planning with US Airways, Orr said, “I know what they want to see.”
The fortunes of Charlotte Douglas are intimately tied to those of US Airways, which operates about 90 percent of the airport’s daily flights. During his almost 24 years running the airport, Orr talked with his biggest tenant regularly as Charlotte grew from a regional hub to the nation’s eighth-busiest airport, measured by passengers. If the proposed merger between US Airways and American Airlines goes through, Charlotte would be the combined airline’s second-busiest hub after Dallas/Fort Worth.
US Airways spokeswoman Michelle Mohr said the airline’s contact with Orr has included “nothing formal or official.”
“We often call friends. And Jerry Orr is a friend to several of us who have worked closely with him for many years,” Mohr said.
“Some of his friends have made personal calls to see how he was doing and share the latest news that we are expanding our international reach here at CLT next spring,” Mohr said. “We are working exclusively with Brent Cagle on airport matters. We have full confidence in Brent and his leadership team.”
Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee said he’s not bothered by Orr’s continued contact with US Airways.
“I’ve not seen any evidence of Jerry inappropriately meddling,” Carlee said. “We have an exceptional relationship with US Airways. It would surprise me if Jerry intentionally sought to undermine that.
“If he still has friends at US Airways he chats with, that’s fine with me.”
Asked whether it’s appropriate for Orr to talk with US Airways, Vinroot said failing to get the commission ready to run the airport would be irresponsible on Orr’s part.
“They need to be up and running and preparing to operate, not sitting on their hands as if it will never happen,” Vinroot said.
Strong opposition surprised Orr
Orr said he miscalculated how strongly the city would oppose transferring control to an authority.
“I really anticipated bipartisan support,” Orr said. “I certainly underestimated the city’s response.”
Orr said he thinks “ugly” partisan politics drove the city’s opposition.
“It was a Raleigh Republican move ... opposed by Democrats far and wide without anybody giving it any thought,” Orr said.
Though he said he’s always thought an independent airport authority would be a good idea, Orr said he first became aware of the current push to change the airport’s governance in fall 2012. He said he told lawmakers who were considering the idea to give it a try.
“It’s kind of, ‘Well, if you can do it, OK,’” Orr said. “They said, ‘Is this a good thing? and my answer would be, ‘It’s a good thing for the airport, it’s a good thing for the community.’”
So what was originally behind the authority push? Supporters said it was necessary to prevent the City Council from meddling in the airport. Orr said it makes sense for the airport, which is funded without local tax dollars, to have its own board of oversight. He said the airport has always been “the red-headed stepchild” among city departments, and city leaders don’t understand the airport.
Orr was also angered by moves the city made to increase its oversight of the airport. Tighter spending controls were put in place after an audit turned up problems with how tax-exempt bond money was allocated. And the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department was given authority over airport police officers, who had previously reported to Orr.
“What these people talk about when they get together has no bearing whatsoever on our issues and concerns,” Orr said of the city’s leadership. “They don’t live in that world and never have. None of these people are businesspeople.”
But Orr casts the divide between the airport and the city as even more elemental. To fully explain the conflict, he offers a rustic analogy.
“You know about the cattlemen and the sheep herders in Oklahoma?” he said. “They can never be friends because the sheep crop the grass close and the cattle crop the grass high. Sheep ruin the range for the cattle.”
And who is the airport?
“I think maybe we’re the cattle ranchers,” Orr said. “I’ve always been called a cowboy.”