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Orr Breaks His Silence On Airport Authority

Julie Rose

  Charlotte Aviation Director Jerry Orr has broken his months-long silence on the subject of creating a regional authority to oversee the airport. 

Jerry Orr made no secret of his preference the airport be under an independent authority rather than a division of city government. But he was muzzled by his bosses at city hall when the whole thing blew up in controversy back in January. 

Now that the city's own consultant recommends transitioning the airport to a "properly structured authority," Orr is talking again.

"Well, I think (an airport authority) takes a lot of the unnecessary motions out of getting things done, and allows us to operate more like a business," says Orr. 

By "unnecessary motions," Orr means "all the time and effort it takes to get all the approvals to do simple things" like purchase equipment. 

Consultant Bob Hazel came to the same conclusion in a report the city paid him $150,000 to produce. 

He says airport authorities tend to be more nimble and business-like than city-run airports. And he says they tend to have less political involvement – which Orr also sees as an advantage.

But a "properly structured airport authority," according to Hazel, is not what North Carolina lawmakers are currently proposing. The management board in their legislation is too large at 13 members, and the city of Charlotte – with just two appointments to that board - doesn't have enough control over it, says Hazel. Sponsors of the legislation disagree, but say they're open to Hazel's recommendations.  

Jerry Orr says he'd like the changes to be made: "I think it important that we get it as right as we can the first time and get on with it."

Orr also shed some additional light on the fraught period last summer that numerous sources tell WFAE was the point when the push to wrest the airport from the city's grasp took flight.  At issue was Jerry Orr's tenure. 

Some have alleged former City Manager Curt Walton demanded that Orr resign – or retire.  Jerry Orr is more circumspect when asked if such a request were ever made.

"Uh, we've had discussions about that," says Orr. "Nobody said retire by such and such a date."

Did he and Walton disagree about how quickly Orr would leave - or in what way?

"Well I'd have to say we had disagreements about how the airport ought to be run," says Orr.

Those disagreements include Walton's move to have CMPD take over policing at the airport and his decision to transfer some airport IT functions to city hall. 

Orr also says he knew the airport's largest customer - US Airways - was planning to meet with Walton last summer and ask for a role in helping choose Orr's eventual replacement.

In fact, Orr encouraged the meeting: "I said, uh, well (my replacement) is not something I can control. You need to talk to the people who can."

Was Orr satisfied with the reception US Airways got from Curt Walton?

"Apparently they weren't," says Orr, drily.

Backers of the airport authority effort say Walton rebuffed the US Airways.  And soon, draft legislation to create a Charlotte airport authority was circulating among local business leaders.

US Airways says in a statement one of its executives was in the loop on that legislation and shared the concern about "the potential forced retirement of Jerry Orr and the loss of his successful, cost-effective model of airport management." However, US Airways insists it has not been directly involved in the effort to create the airport authority.