Oct. 26--Jerry Orr lost his job more than three months ago, but Charlotte's longtime aviation director said he's working full time planning a new, independent airport commission, and still talking with US Airways, the airport's biggest tenant.
Orr, who ran the airport from 1989 to July, is at the center of the dispute over whether the city or the independent commission should run Charlotte Douglas International Airport. US Airways CEO Doug Parker said last week that he wants to see Orr back in charge.
"I'm ready to go back to work" at Charlotte Douglas, said Orr, wearing a black windbreaker emblazoned with the airport's logo. His office in the airport's administrative wing remains unchanged. "I've been ready to go back to work since July the 19th."
But for now at least, Orr is an airport director without an airport.
Orr, a famously taciturn official fond of quoting Clint Eastwood movies, lost his job July 18 after the General Assembly passed a bill creating an airport authority. Orr and city officials still disagree about whether he resigned or was fired.
The political fight over who should be in charge at Charlotte Douglas -- the city or a commission -- grew from rumors in January to a full-blown battle in Raleigh in a matter of weeks. The dispute pitted Mecklenburg's Republican legislators against local Democrats, and burned bridges between the city government in Charlotte and the state. It took up months of legislators' time and political capital, and is now tied up in court.
The city has sued to block the commission, and a judge issued a temporary injunction to halt its implementation. Since Orr is executive director of the commission, he will get his job back if the judge allows the commission to take charge of the airport.
On one side, city leaders and Democratic state lawmakers called the airport authority push a naked power grab and an affront to Charlotte. Both mayoral candidates in the Nov. 5 election say they want to continue the fight to keep the airport under city control, which would preclude Orr's return.
On the other side Orr, some local business leaders and Republican state lawmakers said the airport must be separated from city oversight to protect it from political meddling and alleged attempts to siphon off airport money for other purposes. Orr has some high-profile allies: He and the commission are being represented by former Charlotte mayor Richard Vinroot in the legal fight.
And while US Airways has said it remains officially neutral on the question of who should run the airport, the airline has had a hand in governance at its biggest hub. Parker, the CEO, said earlier this year he expects a voice in picking Orr's successor, which the city agreed to. Before the commission issue became public, a US Airways executive forwarded a draft of an authority bill to a supporter, the company has said.
Orr said in an interview Thursday that the airport needs an end to the "uncertainty and conflict." It's bad for business, he said.
Bond ratings agencies agree with Orr on that. A Moody's analyst said earlier this year that if "political winds" interfere with the airport's operation too much, its bond ratings could take a hit.
Orr at the center
Restoring Orr to his office was one of the main goals of legislators who passed a bill to create the new commission. State Sen. Bob Rucho, a Mecklenburg Republican, called Orr "the only person who knows how to run the airport."
Orr and his former bosses in the city had disagreed before his removal. Tensions ran high over issues such as financial oversight at the airport and whether the airport provided adequate security and policing.
Advocates of keeping the airport under city control say Orr, 72, isn't needed, and that the airport is doing fine under interim aviation director Brent Cagle.
"There was an impression the airport would not succeed without one particular person," said Charlotte City Council member LaWana Mayfield, a Democrat. "What we've learned is that the airport still runs very smoothly. You still see growth happ