CHARLOTTE — A federal agency said Thursday it will stay out of the fight between Charlotte and North Carolina lawmakers for control of the nation’s sixth busiest airport until legal issues are resolved in court.
In a letter to the city, the Federal Aviation Administration said “who governs an airport is a local decision.” But the agency has to ensure that airports “remain safe and financially self-sustaining.”
The FAA said it couldn’t approve the newly created commission to operate the airport until it had more information about the body’s role and structure.
And some of those questions would have to be addressed in a North Carolina court where the city filed a lawsuit to stop the state takeover of Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
City leaders praised the FAA’s letter, because it leaves control of the airport in Charlotte’s hands until legal issues are resolved.
Charlotte Mayor Patsy Kinsey called it a “major victory” in its battle to retain control of the airport, which the city has run for more than 70 years.
But Richard Vinroot, an attorney for the commission, said the FAA’s letter bodes well for his side. He said he would be able to answer many of the FAA’s questions.
“This is a matter of when, not whether, this will happen,” he said.
A North Carolina judge in August blocked the state from stripping control of the airport from the city until the FAA weighed in on the issue.
The city said the Republican-led General Assembly’s move to turn over day-to-day operations of the 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.
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The state House and Senate repealed the airport authority measure and replaced it with legislation that created a commission.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.