RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina legislators on Thursday completed their drive to strip the city of Charlotte of the airport it has run for more than 70 years, but hours later, a judge issued a temporary order blocking the move.
The temporary reprieve granted by Judge Robert Sumner halts the immediate transfer of Charlotte Douglas International Airport, the country’s sixth-busiest airport and a US Airways hub, to an 11-member board selected by officials from the city, Mecklenburg County, and five surrounding counties.
Mayor Pasty Kinsey said Charlotte leaders took legal action to protect the city’s investments in the airport.
“The City of Charlotte is disappointed in the partisan manner in which the General Assembly has adopted an authority bill to take the Charlotte Douglas International Airport away from the city,” Kinsey said at a news conference. “Regardless of what happens in the court case, the council and I will continue to work tirelessly to keep the Charlotte Douglas International Airport one of the best performing, lowest cost airports in the country.”
A court hearing was scheduled for July 29.
There was no debate Thursday as the Republican-led state Senate cast the final votes to approve the transfer, capping a months-long battle for control of what Republican legislators described as a facility with crucial statewide importance facing risk from a meddling city council led by Democrats. The state House had approved the measure earlier this week. Republicans took control of the state legislature after the 2010 midterm elections, and have been aggressively pushing a conservative, pro-business agenda that has drawn weekly protests.
Charlotte leaders including former Mayor Anthony Foxx argued the city was forced to get more involved after lapses in airport operations, but that it has otherwise managed the facility smoothly and invested in its growth. Foxx became U.S. transportation secretary earlier this month.
Lawmakers have said the jockeying is part of an all-out press to persuade Tempe, Ariz.-based US Airways, which is in the midst of merging with American Airlines, to keep Charlotte’s airport as its largest flight hub. Airlines at Charlotte Douglas enjoy some of the lowest costs in the country.
Charlotte officials had signaled they were ready to go to court to stop the takeover of one of the city’s largest assets.
“By taking an action like that, the city is really hurting the Golden Goose that everybody’s trying to preserve — and that is the economic engine of the region, the city and the state,” said Sen. Bob Rucho, a Republican from the Charlotte suburb of Matthews.
Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor, said Thursday that US Airways brought up some of the initial concerns about how the airport was being managed, The Charlotte Observer reported. McCrory cannot block the legislation with a veto because it was filed to deal with a local issue.
Charlotte was the sixth-busiest U.S. airport in the 12 months ending in March by number of passengers, according to the U.S Transportation Department’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
The airport will grow in statewide importance with the coming completion of an intermodal freight distribution network linking planes, rail and East Coast ports, Rucho said. The airport-based terminal is expected to create thousands of jobs.
The airport control battle is one outgrowth of the strange and fatal case of 16-year-old Delvonte Tisdale of Charlotte. The high school student stole past Charlotte’s airport security in 2010 and climbed into the wheel well of a US Airways flight bound for Boston. His body was found the following day along the jet approach to Boston’s airport.
The death prompted a city review of airport security that led to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police taking command instead of airport authorities. That led last year to months of bitter infighting among police, airport and other city officials.
The city hired a consulting company to evaluate the best way to operate the airport. The consultant’s report said in April that an independent airport authority would be best.
The 11-member board isn’t fully in place, but the legislation said that an existing city advisory committee would carry out limited functions of the regional airport authority board for the time being.
Late Thursday, city officials announced that Aviation Director Jerry Orr had resigned his post to become director of the new airport authority.
City Manager Ron Carlee said Orr had resigned, stating in a letter that his job as aviation director ended with the passage of legislation establishing the airport authority, The Observer reported.
Carlee said he had named Brent Cagle as interim aviation director. Cagle is chief financial officer for Charlotte Douglas.
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