Control of Statesville airport in question

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Posted: Saturday, March 9, 2013 9:45 pm

A plan is afoot in the North Carolina General Assembly to strip the Charlotte City Council of its governance of the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport and place it in the hands of a proposed airport authority.

What folks here may not know from cursory reports on the legislation is that its reaches may extend far beyond the boundaries of Mecklenburg County – and could include the Statesville Regional Airport.

Sections 8 and 9 of the bill – Senate Bill 81; House Bill 104 – seem to transfer power from governing bodies in Mecklenburg and five contiguous counties (including Iredell) and their municipalities to a proposed airport authority.

Section 8 reads, in part, that the proposed authority “shall be regarded as the corporate instrumentality and agent for Cabarrus, Gaston, Iredell, Lincoln, Mecklenburg and Union counties and the city of Charlotte for purpose of developing aviation facilities in the counties. …”

Section 9 reads, “All rights, powers and authority given to the counties and/or municipalities by the statutes of North Carolina, which may now be in effect or which may be enacted in the future, relating to the development, operation, maintenance, regulation, and/or control of the municipality of other governmental airport, and the regulations of airport are hereby vested in the authority.”

Iredell County Board of Commissioners Chairman Steve Johnson also serves as the chair of the Statesville Regional Airport Committee.

And Johnson doesn’t like what he sees in the legislation.

“I think Charlotte needs to run Charlotte’s airport and I think all authority for the Statesville airport needs to stay in Statesville,” Johnson said.

The new airport authority would comprise members from each of the counties involved, with additional members coming specifically from Charlotte.

But Johnson said the massive Charlotte-Douglas (the sixth busiest airport in the world) has little to do with Statesville Regional and that mixing them in the same bowl is not a move he is in favor of.

“I don’t want the authority over what happens at the Charlotte airport,” Johnson said. “And what happens in Statesville should be left up to the Statesville City Council.”

Johnson said he is appreciative that the city gives the county “a place at the table” by allowing a member of the Board of Commissioners to be on the Airport Commission, but added that “all authority should be kept with elected officials, not just with the airports but as often as possible. The more you start appointing people and giving power to non-elected people, the more you have things that can go wrong.”

Johnson questioned “what was broken in the first place that needed this bill to fix it?”

The simple answer to that is money, according to those who support it.

The bigger reason, they say, is that the Charlotte region’s very economy is built on top of it.

Charlotte-Douglas International Airport is, by far, the least expensive “major hub” in the United States. The facility’s per-passenger enplanement charge of 97 cents is about one-third that of the next lowest on the list – Salt Lake City – and one-tenth that of the median rate of $9.97.

And, according to Charlotte Airport Advisory Committee Chairman Shawn Dorsch, Charlotte-Douglas has operated with the low fees to bolster its position as an economic engine and a magnet for attracting and

keeping business in the region. He said that raising those fees would likely have a rippling effect.

As a person who serves at the pleasure of the Charlotte City Council, Dorsch would not offer an opinion regarding the proposed legislation or any possible impact it may have on Statesville Regional Airport.

But State Sen. David Curtis did. 

Speaking at a breakfast meeting of the Iredell Republican Men on Saturday, Curtis said that the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport could be better managed by people who get paid full-time to make policy and governmental decisions.

“We’re letting some part-time politicians, which is essentially what Charlotte city council members are, have control of an asset which is so important to this area,” said Curtis, whose 44th District includes more than half of Iredell County.

Passage of the bill, Curtis implied, would mean additional oversight to ensure profits from the airport go toward improving the airport specifically. He said the city had previously attempted to tax the airport’s 26,000 parking spots and use the money for other projects.

Curtis also said the bill would not affect Statesville’s airport. The board created to govern Charlotte’s airport has no say-so or authority in what happens in Statesville, Curtis said.

“This would strictly be Charlotte only,” Curtis said.

While that may true, the wording of the bill – particularly in the above-mentioned sections – allows for wiggle room and interpretation.

“I’m not sure what the intention of the bill is,” said Thomas Hazel, president of Statesville Flying Service, the fixed base operator of Statesville Regional. “But when you have to read something a few times

just to figure out what it might be saying, it’s probably a good idea to tweak the language a little.”

Meanwhile, Gov. Pat McCrory – whose signature is not needed to ultimately enact the bill – said he wants a more thorough study done on the matter before he makes an informed comment on it. And last week, the Charlotte City Council voted to allocate $150,000 for such a study.

Action on the bill in the General Assembly is expected to be halted until after the study is conducted.