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) and United ( UAL).

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.

The next day, Orr submitted a letter to the city, saying he was employed by the commission. The city chose to view the document as a resignation letter, and Orr was told to leave the airport. "Obviously (the letter) was a mistake, but I think I was obligated to write it," Orr said, in an interview.

Meanwhile, in response to the city's lawsuit, a Superior Court judge temporarily halted the airport's transfer to the commission, pending Federal Aviation Administration review. So Orr now works for the commission, which is engaged primarily in waiting for the FAA review, while the city runs the airport without him.

Orr said he had little or nothing to do with the Republican power grab, although he conceded that "I went to work at the airport in April 1975 and on the second day I figured out that it desperately needed to be run by an airport authority. I have believed that consistently, and that's what I always said if anybody asked."

On Tuesday, Orr's attorney charged that the FAA was excluding commission representatives from any discussion regarding the airport's transfer, The Charlotte Observer reported.

While the Transportation Department oversees the FAA, former Mayor Foxx said he has recused himself from consideration of the airport's status. Even so, the appearance, at best, is that the transition -- a relatively simple one since the city would retain airport ownership and control -- is being delayed because someone wants to please their new boss. Either that or "recusal" means: "I'm watching - I'm just not saying anything right now."

US Airways has long had a good relationship with Orr, but it has never been a relationship where the airline got whatever it wanted. "Ask (CEO) Doug Parker," Orr said. "He says that when he first came to meet me, I said, 'Tell me what you want and I'll tell you what you can have.' I said it in a more gentlemanly manner, but the message was there. My job was never to give US Airways everything they asked for. It was to give them what they needed to be successful."

Now, one danger is that the city, seeking to make sure it does not endanger its relationship with the airline, will give away the store. Orr said he isn't aware of any specific concessions, but "if you do what people ask you to do, they will like you, and I think there is an overabundance of trying to be liked."

In municipalities that operate airports, conflict between elected officials and airport people is inevitable. This is because hundreds of millions of dollars flow through major airports annually, collected from airlines, airport businesses and parking lots, and then spent -- hopefully -- to make the airport better. The elected officials always want more power, more oversight, more opportunity to spend the money as they see fit. Orr, backed by Republican Mayor Pat McCrory, successfully resisted for years, one reason why he has few friends on the city council today. A commission might not be able to beat back the political pressure either, but it could create a bit more distance between the parties.

When I arrived in Charlotte in 1996, the city was essentially run by a small cadre of wise leaders, including NationsBank CEO Hugh McColl, First Union CEO Ed Crutchfield, Duke Power CEO Bill Grigg, McCrory -- an effective mayor who became an ineffective governor -- and maybe a few others. They are all gone now, generally replaced by people either less committed to Charlotte or less able or less willing to act on its behalf.

Probably it would never have happened this way, but I can imagine Hugh McColl contacting the mayor, whoever he or she might be, to say that: "Jerry Orr built the airport. He loves the airport. Give him a few more years to complete his projects and to train a successor." And the mayor says sure.

The alternative? Fire the guy, with no transition plan in place, and let the airport hang in the balance with massive construction underway and the biggest tenant's future undetermined. All for spite. City government as spitetocracy.

Can't anybody in Charlotte make the right call?

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Ted Reed

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