by Michael Lowrey
Or resigns. Or is still in charge. Or will soon be in charge again. Or something like that. It all gets rather confusing in the immediate aftermath of the General Assembly passing a law transferring control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport from the city to an independent regional authority and the city’s obtaining an injunction to block the transfer.
This much is clear though: the whole situation is a complete train wreck, with all the negative energy you’d see in a nasty divorce in which it becomes all about ‘winning’ regardless of the consequences and costs. And to put it bluntly, none of the principles involved comes off looking very good. In particular:
• Jerry Orr. It ultimately is all about Jerry Orr and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. And Orr has done a good job running the airport in the past. Past performance is no indication of current or future performance though, and that’s the problem.
This whole sad episode illustrates what happens when someone in power operates without any meaningful oversight for too long. There’s very good reason to question the administration of the airport in recent years (see: Tisdale, Delvonte).
Also, Orr’s pronouncements about the inevitable of strong future growth at CLT are questionable at best. There’s a fine line between optimism and irrational hope — and Jerry’s been over the line for a while now, displaying an obsession with CLT becoming literally every bit as big as Atlanta, the world’s busiest airport. That starts with plans to increase the number of gates at the airport by nearly half in the short term, which would be a curious thing to do when US Airways does not actually have plans to increase the size of its regional or narrowbody fleets. And Orr’s longer-term vision includes a couple more concourses beyond that.
That absolutely no one is asking for a justification for Orr’s projections indicates a fundamental intellectual failure by this community’s political and economic leadership.
• Jerry Orr’s enablers (Stan Campbell, Bob Rucho, Ruth Samuelson, William Brawley etc.) are definitely part of the problem. They seem to believe that cheaper government by definition must equal more effective government — that any and every additional government spending is by definition a bad thing, even on something like police protection. This view ignores some things: Jerry Orr wants to build a lot of really, really expense stuff at the airport. The far greater danger comes from spending hundreds of millions of dollars on unneeded infrastructure than from a couple million a year in extra police cost.
And then there’s the extremely serious Delvonte Tisdale security breach, which largely set this whole issue in motion. It’s hard to argue that airport was doing things right in 2010 when this happened.
• Charlotte city officials, starting with Anthony Foxx, then City Manager Curt Walton, and most of the people on city council, have been remarkably inept throughout this whole saga. This mob didn’t come out of the Panthers stadium “negotiations” looking particularly good. Nothing they’ve done in the whole airport situation since has improved their reputation.
That the larger city government started questioning airport operations was both understandable and necessary. The problem is that they did it in about the most ham-fisted manner possible, with Walton even managing to offend US Airways officials. And yes, what the city was asking of the airport may well have been excessive. This issue would never have gotten as far as it did had Foxx and Walton been more skilled at handling Orr, US Airways executives, and others. Or if they and their predecessors had not essentially been asleep at the switch the past 10 or 20 years, as Orr became such a revered figure that few locally questioned anything he said.
To no great surprise given the Panthers debacle, the city has proven absolutely inept at negotiating once the push to create a regional authority became public early this year. Seeming reasonable in public goes a long way towards building public goodwill. The city never did that, instead taking a hardline throughout. When the city finally talked about giving its Airport Advisory Committee more power, it came very late in the game — as in earlier this week — and made the city look desperate and weak.
Speaking of bad ideas, having had Shawn Dorsch as head of the AAC would definitely qualify. And that’s not a knock on Dorsch. Dorsch runs the Carolinas Aviation Museum, which rents space out at the airport. Having a tenant in charge of overseeing his landlord just doesn’t work. And presuming that he’d owe greater allegance to the city than Orr was not realistic either.
I also don’t get why the city didn’t agree to a study commission to push this issue out a year and offer up a strengthen AAC at the same time, which would have been a public relations winning move. Or try to undermine Orr by presenting his growth plans as unrealistic.