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While the courts try to sort out who should run Charlotte Douglas International Airport, we know who already calls the shots — American Airlines/US Airways.
The Charlotte Airport Commission doesn’t have permission to run the airport yet, but the group’s members spent Thursday afternoon familiarizing themselves with the runways, airlines and budget numbers behind the airport.
Despite an injunction last year barring the commission from operating the airport, the 13 commissioners are still meeting monthly. They could end up in charge of Charlotte Douglas International Airport, the nation’s eighth-busiest airport and one of the Charlotte region’s most important economic assets.
The commissioners and airport administrators piled into a shuttle bus and rode around Charlotte Douglas, touring runways, the new rail cargo yard and new parking decks. Along the way, they asked about the basics of airport operations, such as how the gates are leased and fuel is allocated to the airlines.
“Assuming the commission ends up being a legal entity, where does the commission come in” on issues such as bonds? Muriel Sheubrooks asked.
Brent Cagle — who is both interim executive director of the commission and interim aviation director for the city — briefed the commissioners on upcoming contract negotiations and the airport’s proposed terminal renovations.
“One hundred thousand people every day wears the facility out,” said Cagle. Charlotte Douglas is planning to start $32 million worth of renovations on a “Terminal Rehabilitation Project,” which will include furniture, flooring, wall panels and ceilings throughout Concourses A, B and C, as well as the atrium.
Cagle said that costs have begun to increase at Charlotte Douglas because of the higher costs of providing services and maintaining the aging building. But he said he expects the airport to remain the low-cost leader among large hubs.
The airport is still working with outside consultants to study its finances, employee compensation and produce an annual report for the first time this year.
“Us and maybe one other large hub airport don’t publish annual reports,” Cagle said. The airport’s annual finances are currently included as part of the city’s annual financial report.
American Airlines, which merged with US Airways in December, accounts for more than 90 percent of daily flights at Charlotte Douglas. The airline’s 30-year lease with Charlotte Douglas runs out in 2016. Cagle warned commissioners not to expect another long-term lease, as the industry standard is now leases of 10 years or less.
“A shorter lease is not an indication of a weaker relationship or even a weaker commitment between the airport and the airlines,” Cagle said.
Limbo at airport
For now at least, Charlotte Douglas remains an independently funded city department, with Cagle reporting to City Manager Ron Carlee.
Despite conversations between Gov. Pat McCrory and Mayor Patrick Cannon, no compromise has been proposed. Lawmakers have moved on from the divisive fight that consumed much of last year, pitting legislators in Raleigh against local officials in Charlotte.
The court case between the state, the city and the commission is stuck in limbo, with no hearings scheduled.
The judge has asked the Federal Aviation Administration to tell him whether the commission can run the airport, and the FAA has asked the judge for his opinion. Commission Chairman Robert Stolz sent the FAA a letter last month asking the agency to speed its decision. The FAA hasn’t replied, Stolz said.
In an indication of the bureaucratic confusion around the case, a spokeswoman for the FAA said Thursday that the agency had not received Stolz’s Feb. 27 letter. Cagle backed that up.
“The FAA has not formally received your letter yet,” Cagle told Stolz. “You sent it snail mail. … Federal mail has to go through a sorting facility.”
“That is not the case,” Stolz said. “They received an electronic copy of it.” ___