Sunday, October 13, 2013

Charlotte Airport Commission to meet Nov. 7, Orr to retire by 2015

The newly-appointed Charlotte Airport Commission will hold its first meeting Nov. 7, and executive director Jerry Orr said he will retire no later than June 2015 — though it’s unclear whether Orr will actually be able to return and run the airport again before that.

Orr’s 2015 retirement date is the first time he’s publicly named a time to step down. Orr, known for his taciturn style and dry wit, ran Charlotte Douglas International Airport since 1989 and worked there since 1975. Orr, 72, has said little about his retirement plans beyond quips about he has wanted to retire since the day he started work.

But Orr was removed from his job as aviation director in July, after the N.C. General Assembly passed a bill creating a new, independent body to oversee the airport and remove day-to-day operations from the city’s control. Orr says he was fired, but city leaders say he resigned.

He continues to receive his $211,000 salary, because in the bill the General Assembly passed, Orr is named as director of the airport commission. Now, Orr is spending his time working with former Charlotte mayor and attorney Richard Vinroot to get the commission up and running and get his job back.

It’s also unclear what the commission will have to do at its first meeting. A Superior Court judge issued a temporary injunction blocking the commission’s implementation earlier this year, at the city’s request. That judge still must rule on whether or not the commission should be allowed run the airport or not.

For now, the airport is still operated as an independently-funded department of the city, with interim aviation director Brent Cagle reporting to city manager Ron Carlee. If the judge allows the commission law to be implemented, Orr would automatically get his job back and return to oversee the airport and the commission would take over most aspects of running the airport.

In a Saturday letter to the commission’s 13 members, Orr indicated the first meeting will be largely informational.

“We’ll have a lot to talk about at our first meeting on November 7,” Orr wrote. “I’m planning to provide you with

as much ‘orientation’ as possible that night concerning the complexities you’ll face in your governance

of this $165 million business going forward.”

In a special to the Observer published Sunday, Orr admitted the city’s lawsuit currently limits the commission’s authority. But he also called for city leaders and others to move beyond the “petty politics” that have characterized much of the fight about the airport so far.

“People are tired of political stalemate, and continued bickering creates the misimpression of instability at our airport,” Orr wrote. “That’s risky, particularly at a time when our biggest tenant, US Airways, is negotiating a merger and deciding which airports to invest in.”

Orr told the commission members in his letter that he wants to serve during a “transitional period” that would run through June 2015. That would give Orr time to oversee the rest of several major airport projects, including the intermodal rail cargo transfer yard and the airport’s new hourly parking decks and entrance road.

The airport commission would have time to search for a permanent director, Orr said. And it would allow him to oversee negotiations with the airport’s biggest tenant, US Airways. The airline, which operates almost 90 percent of daily flights at Charlotte Douglas, has a master lease scheduled to expire in 2016.

Last week, Orr told the Observer that he didn’t think the city’s recent actions, such as a series of audits recently begun, would hurt lease negotiations as long as he was back in charge.

“I think if I’m there when we negotiate the lease, it won’t have any kind of impact,” said Orr. 

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