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Judge Blocks Charlotte Airport Takeover

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(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — A North Carolina judge on Thursday blocked the state from stripping control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport from the city until the Federal Aviation Administration weighs in on the issue.

Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin issued a preliminary injunction after a three-hour hearing in which the city said the FAA had concerns about the transfer.

The city also said the Republican-led General Assembly’s move to turn over day-to-day operations of the nation’s sixth-busiest airport to a 13-member airport commission runs afoul of the state constitution.

One of the key issues is whether an FAA-issued operating certificate could be transferred from the city to the commission. The city said no, while attorneys for the commission said it could be.

Ervin said there was no harm in waiting for the FAA to decide the issue.

“Why don’t we sit back and wait for to see what they want to do?” Ervin said, adding that it wasn’t worth the risk.

Richard Vinroot, an attorney representing the commission, said he will move quickly to apply for an FAA certificate to operate the airport.

Vinroot, a former Charlotte mayor and the GOP’s 2000 nominee for governor, said he’s worried that Charlotte will try to “game the system” and work to block FAA approval.

But Charlotte Mayor Patsy Kinsey praised the judge’s ruling, saying it helps illustrate the “nature of this flawed legislation.”

“It would be irresponsible to be dismissive or cavalier about compliance with Federal Aviation Administration regulations and financial implications of this highly complex and unique piece of legislation,” Kinsey said. “We must take care not to put any aspect of the airport at risk. Today’s ruling provides an opportunity to further understand the legal complexities surrounding the airport’s operations.”

The judge’s ruling is the latest development in Charlotte’s legal fight to maintain control over the airport, which it has run for more than 70 years.

For months, Republican lawmakers have been trying to strip Charlotte’s control of the airport.

On July 18, the General Assembly approved transferring the airport, a hub for Tempe-Ariz.-based US Airways, to a regional authority. But a few hours later, a judge issued a temporary order blocking the move in response to a city lawsuit.

The airport’s longtime director was ousted, and city officials feared that transferring control to an authority would send $800 million in airport bonds into default.

A week after the ruling, legislators tried a different approach to address the city’s objections.

The state House and Senate repealed the airport authority measure and replaced it with legislation that created a commission. Under the new plan, the city would still own the airport — but the commission would operate it. The commission also would make critical decisions about the airport’s operations, including awarding contracts, hiring and firing and approving expansion plans.

“The legislative response to our lawsuit was new legislation,” a city attorney, Robert Orr, told the judge. He added that the legislation would cause irreparable harm to North Carolina’s largest city.

During the hearing, city attorneys noted that the new legislation said the commission would “immediately” take control of the airport. The original legislation said that change would take place later this year.

The FAA said in a letter than it had concerns about the legislation, particularly who would be the official sponsor of the airport. The FAA listed a number of requirements the city and commission must fulfill, such as ensuring the new airport conforms to federal rules. Among those requirements is that that airport revenue be used only for airport-specific projects.

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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