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Aviation Director Mum As Tussle Over Charlotte Airport Intensifies

orr dorsch airport.jpg
Julie Rose

A power struggle is afoot over Charlotte's airport. The city council has long overseen it, but soon Republican lawmakers from Mecklenburg County will introduce a measure that would strip control of the airport from city hands. The plan has sparked anxiety and accusations as WFAE's Julie Rose explains.

Charlotte Aviation director Jerry Orr has been open in the past about how nice it would be to have a dedicated board of directors – not just a part-time city council – to oversee airport operations. But now that it's clear some state lawmakers are serious about creating a regional airport authority to take control of Charlotte-Douglas, Orr is suddenly mum.

"I'm a city employee and I'm obligated to do what my employers want me to do," says Orr. Charlotte City staff have warned him not to talk about his stance on an airport authority.

 Tempers have flared at city hall, where Mayor Anthony Foxx this week portrayed the situation as a "backroom" power grab.

"There appears to be a serious conversation about removing city control over Charlotte Douglas International Airport," said Foxx in his State of the City address. "That's wrong."

Credit www.ncleg.net
NC State Senator Bob Rucho (R-Mecklenburg)

But Senator Bob Rucho thinks it's just what the airport needs: "What we're trying to see is that the very best people are put in charge of what is a very critical economic asset of the region and the state."

Rucho says he'll introduce a bill soon to make a regional authority for the Charlotte airport.  Matthews Representative Bill Brawley is also supportive of the idea.

Practically speaking, the airport operates as a stand-alone financial entity and the city council has been inclined to rubber-stamp most everything Jerry Orr's recommended for 25 years.

But Orr is 71 years old and on the verge of retiring. Senator Rucho thinks creating an airport authority would make Charlotte more attractive to someone worthy of filling Orr's shoes.

"You need to be sure that you have a group of concerned citizens that would be out there that represent the entire region," says Rucho. "That is the regional airport. It's not just Charlotte. Everyone has to have some ownership in it to make it as great as it can possibly be."

Rucho says the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority is a good model. Those two cities and the counties of Durham and Wake each appoint two people to an eight-member board that controls the airport's destiny.