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North Carolina's Latest Disgrace: Iconic Airport Chief Fired at 72

CHARLOTTE, N.C. ( TheStreet) -- It's not just North Carolina's right-wing Republicans who are wackily dismantling key components of the state's infrastructure.

While the Tea Party team in Raleigh exploits its newfound dominance of state government to destroy North Carolina's reputation as an enlightened, moderate beacon of the New South, the Democrats in Charlotte, the state's biggest city, are also busy, spitefully mismanaging the state's most important transportation asset.

Now it appears that Democrats in Washington, where former Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx took over as Transportation Secretary in July, are lending them a hand.

Charlotte Douglas International Airport is the eighth busiest U.S. airport, the largest hub for US Airways (LCC) and a key to the airline's planned merger with American (AAMRQ).

Jerry Orr, 72, who became airport director in 1989, is widely applauded as perhaps the nation's best airport director because he built the airport, enabling it to become one of deregulation's biggest winners and, if the merger occurs, to become the second-largest hub for the world's largest airline. Yet today Orr sits at home, nominally overseeing a new airport commission that exists in name only. He has not been to the airport, where he worked for 38 years, since he was fired July 18.

The airport rarely needed leadership more. Nearly a quarter billion dollars' worth of construction is underway, including $120 million in parking lot improvements. Moreover, US Airways, the largest tenant with more than 90% of the passengers, is at a crossroads, awaiting a Nov. 25 U.S. District Court hearing on the Justice Department's objection to the merger, even though Justice approved similar mergers for both Delta (DAL - Get Report) and United (UAL - Get Report).

At this critical time, Charlotte Douglas is being run by an interim director, who until Orr's sudden departure had been airport chief financial officer for 18 months, after spending five years in the finance department at Phoenix International Airport.

How did we get here? To recount briefly, early this year Raleigh Republicans seized on a perceived need to wrest control of the airport from a Democratic city which has run it successfully since 1936. Legislators initially sought to create an airport authority, its members selected primarily by people from outside Charlotte, arguably people who do not much care for Charlotte. Not surprisingly, Democrats and the city pushed back.

In the legislative session's closing days, the Republicans backtracked and sought to compromise by creating a commission rather than an authority. With a commission, Charlotte would retain airport ownership and control, but appointees rather than city council members would have direct oversight. Orr was designated to be executive director of the commission. The legislature approved this plan, probably a good one, but under the circumstances not one the city was going to embrace.
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