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Charlotte Loses Its Airport - Nearly

Julie Rose

The city of Charlotte has lost control of its airport – or nearly so. The North Carolina General Assembly passed a measure Thursday officially transferring Charlotte Douglas International into the hands of a regional authority – immediately. 

But just as quickly, the city sued to stop it and was granted a temporary restraining order.

After six months of rancor and a flurry of last minute attempts at compromise, the final legislative vote was kind of anticlimactic: it happened in less than a minute with no discussion or debate.

"I think everything that could be said on this subject was said yesterday and I urge that you pass this - thank you," said Senator Bob Rucho, the bill's sponsor.

And just like that, the bill passed along party lines – Republicans voting for it, Democrats against.

"The state now has officially taken the city's airport away from the citizens of Charlotte for no good reason," said City Councilman Andy Dulin. Less than an hour after the bill passed, he was reeling at the implication.  

"I'm looking in the sky now seeing airplanes landing our airport right this moment," said Dulin. "That airplane five minutes ago was landing at the city of Charlotte's airport. Now it's landing at an authority airport."

Well, nearly.

As soon as the measure passed, Charlotte city attorneys were in court asking a judge to temporarily halt the transfer. Their request was granted.  

"I wish we would have never gotten to this point," said Governor Pat McCrory. He spent the last two weeks trying to broker a compromise, but by Thursday morning he was in Charlotte lamenting the inevitability of a lawsuit:

"I have no idea what the legal ramifications are – but let's do it and let's find out soon," said McCrory. Adding that his main concern now is to make sure US Airways feels confident regardless of the outcome in all of this. 

The airline issued the following statement: "What’s important to US Airways is not who owns the airport, but that it be managed in a way that protects its value as an economic engine for the region."

Aviation Director Jerry Orr says the change will have no affect on US Airways – or travelers passing through Charlotte.

"We think it'll be absolutely transparent," says Orr. "We don't think they'll notice anything at all."

Orr didn't say much else in reacting to the bill's passage. But he's been clear all along that this is the outcome he wanted – to get out from under the city's bureaucracy and have what he thinks would be a more nimble, efficient operation with an authority. 

The airport authority is supposed to be governed by an 11-member regional board, which hasn't been appointed yet. But then again, the whole transition is temporarily on hold because of the judge's order.

Among other things, the city is arguing the measure could lead to a default on some $800 million in outstanding debt issued by the city on the airport's behalf.  

Former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot has been hired to represent the airport authority in court. And authority backers are confident the transition will be good for Charlotte Douglas International.

"It ensures that politics will be kept out of probably the biggest economic engine in the region for many, many, many years," says former Charlotte City Councilman Stan Campbell.

The tug-of-war over the Charlotte Douglas International Airport now shifts from Raleigh to the court room.