CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Charlotte City Council members struggled Monday night to understand how a consultant they hired concluded that Charlotte Douglas International Airport has been “spectacularly successful” while city-run, but should still be run by a new, regional authority.
Council member Beth Pickering said that before the conclusions were released, some had thought the city-funded study would conclude that the city should stay in control of the airport.
“You certainly laid those concerns to rest,” she told consultant Bob Hazel.
City Council commissioned the $150,000 study in March, in response to the push in the legislature to take control of Charlotte Douglas from the city and give it to a regional authority.
Hazel, a former US Airways vice president who works for the firm Oliver Wyman, recommended the airport be transferred from the city to an authority. A bill to do that is pending in the legislature.
Monday’s meeting turned tense at points. Several council members said they disagreed with Hazel’s conclusions and some said they believed Hazel came in with his mind already made up in favor of an authority, which he denied.
Council member Patrick Cannon said he didn’t realize Hazel had been employed by US Airways, and that if he had known that, he might have felt differently about hiring him. US Airways is Charlotte Douglas’ largest tenant.
“It was fully disclosed,” Hazel told City Council of his former employment.
Hazel’s report, released last week, showed Charlotte Douglas has the lowest cost-per-passenger out of the top 25 U.S. airports and some of the lowest costs of any airport in the nation.
“There is no history of issues here,” Hazel said. But instituting a new airport authority, he said, would be the best way to give the airport a chance at continuing to be successful in the future.
“This is like two different reports ... It doesn’t make sense,” councilman David Howard said of Hazel’s conclusions. He compared them to telling a bright student, “You’re getting an A, but you’re not going to college anyway.”
Hazel said that an authority would be able to function more like a business, get better oversight from a dedicated board, and be ensured freedom from city interference in the future. Best practices call for running the airport as an authority, and Hazel said his conclusion would have been the same whether or not there was a political fight over the airport.
“If you believe the airport is really a business or collection of businesses rather than a public service – which I do – then it benefits from being run like a business,” said Hazel.
Legislation to create a 13-member regional authority is being considered in the N.C. House. It has already passed the state Senate, and since it is a “local bill,” Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature isn’t required. The House will likely hear the bill in committee later this month before taking a final vote.
Under the current bill, members would be appointed by Charlotte City Council, the mayor, Mecklenburg County, the five neighboring counties, the governor and the state legislature. Ownership of the airport’s property would pass from the city to the new authority.
Hazel has recommended the authority be overseen by a smaller board with more appointments from Charlotte, and that the appointments by the state and surrounding counties be eliminated or minimized.
Howard said he worried that instead of depoliticizing the airport, as authority supporters have suggested, having an authority will instead open the airport to more political maneuvering. He raised the specter of votes one day being swapped for appointments to the authority, if state legislative appointments remain part of the bill.
“There are now 170 people who can use our airport as a political football,” Howard said.
City Council voted to ask the city manager to contact other counties about possibly expanding the airport’s current non-binding advisory board as a sort of “olive branch.” Several surrounding counties, including Lincoln, Gaston, Iredell and Cabarrus have passed resolutions in support of the authority legislation.
Cannon said the city isn’t giving up its fight against the airport authority, which it has consistently opposed. But he said the city should ensure what’s best for the airport’s future no matter what happens.
Council member Michael Barnes echoed comments by Mayor Anthony Foxx, who has said he believes business interests – not sound governance – are behind the airport authority push.
“The issues are we are in the way of someone making a buck on the airport,” said Barnes.
Authority supporters have said that Charlotte business people concerned about the airport’s future are driving the legislation. But only a few supporters, including developer Johnny Harris and former city council member Stan Campbell, have come forward publicly. They have denied business interests are behind their support.
Council member Andy Dulin told the consultant he didn’t think he had done a good job.
“I don’t fully respect your work,” Dulin told Hazel. “We’re going to cut you and your company a check, and that check’s not going to bounce...Do not put me on your reference list when you’re looking for more contracts.”