Cagle focused on airport growth amid controversy

elyportillo@charlotteobserver.comOctober 30, 2013 

  • Brent Cagle Age: 41 Education: Bachelor of Arts, English, Baylor University. Master of Public Administration, Texas Tech University Work experience: Cagle was an administrator, budget analyst and internal auditor for the city of Phoenix from 1995 to 2007. He joined the Phoenix aviation department in 2007, and was named deputy aviation director of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in 2008. In 2012, Cagle joined the staff at Charlotte Douglas as assistant aviation director of finance. Family: Wife and son Salary: $152,640 Ely Portillo

Interim aviation director Brent Cagle said Wednesday that he’s not focused on the controversy over who should run Charlotte Douglas International Airport, but rather on upgrading and expanding the nation’s eighth-busiest airport.

Cagle was appointed interim aviation director in July after 1 1/2 years as an assistant aviation director overseeing the finances at Charlotte Douglas. He replaced longtime aviation director Jerry Orr, who was removed from his job after the N.C. General Assembly passed a law transferring control of the airport from the city to an independent authority.

With that law temporarily blocked by a judge, Cagle finds himself in charge of an airport still in the midst of a growth spurt, while the question of who will run Charlotte Douglas remains unresolved. He’s preparing for a new round of construction likely to include a new runway, a new concourse building and an eight-lane roadway in front of the terminal.

“We have 100,000 people who come through our terminal every day,” said Cagle, in his office at the airport’s administrative building off Wilkinson Boulveard “The airport often seems like a construction zone where airplanes just happen to come and go. It is a huge challenge to build for the future while accommodating the present.”

Charlotte Douglas is an independently-funded city department, funded with concessions, parking fees, airline landing fees and federal grants.

But much is still in flux. On Friday, Orr and attorneys will spar with the city in a court hearing, as a judge considers whether to let the commission take over airport operations. Orr, who is executive director of the commission, would return to the airport if the commission wins its case.

It all puts Cagle in a potentially uncomfortable situation. Even as he settles in to run Charlotte Douglas, his predecessor is still fighting to get his job back. A shadow government of sorts, the 13-member commission, has been assembled to run the airport and is scheduled to meet for the first time next Thursday.

US Airways CEO Doug Parker said last week during a phone call with analysts that, “Jerry Orr has done an amazing job, and we’d like to see him back.”

But Cagle said he doesn’t spend a lot of time focused on Orr.

“There’s enough on my plate as is,” said Cagle. “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the commission and the what-ifs around all of this legal wrangling.”

US Airways has since clarified that while Parker was expressing praise for Orr, he has “full confidence” in Cagle. US Airways is Charlotte Douglas’ largest tenant, accounting for nearly 90 percent of the airport’s daily flights. Cagle said he and other airport leaders are in close contact with US Airways, talking with the airline daily.

Charlotte Mayor Patsy Kinsey praised Cagle this week at a City Council meeting. “Clearly, things at the airport continue to run quite smoothly, and I’d like to publicly thank Brent and his team for all the hard work they’ve done to ensure such a seamless transition,” said Kinsey.

Asked to define some of the differences between himself and Orr, Cagle said he believes his leadership style is more collaborative.

“My style is to focus on communication and to build collaboration and teams,” said Cagle. “I honestly believe that the best organizations are really not a reflection of one person. They’re really a reflection of the quality of management in the organization.”

There are other contrasts between Orr and Cagle. Orr’s background was in engineering and surveying, while Cagle has been in the financial side of city government for most of his career. Orr drove a slightly beaten-up, city-owned Ford Crown Victoria at work; Cagle prefers a brand-new, all-electric Nissan Leaf for his city vehicle.

And while Orr worked out of a corner office in the terminal, overlooking the whole airfield and stuffed with knick-knacks, Cagle works in a sparsely-decorated interior office at the airport’s administrative center.

While Cagle and Orr have some differences in style, they have at least one thing in common as airport directors: Neither likes to fly. Cagle said he prefers to drive when he goes to visit family in Missouri – a 15-hour trip – and only flies for business.

Airport improvements needed

Despite any uncertainty, Cagle said the airport is quickly moving forward with improvements for passengers and airlines.

• Cagle said a review of the airport shows there’s a need to upgrade the terminal with amenities such as terrazo flooring to replace worn-out carpets and more outlets for electronic devices.

“Twenty years ago if you said you need power outlets any place you can put them, I’m guessing every aviation director would have looked at you and laughed,” said Cagle. “We’re looking at opportunities to increase those charging stations...Clearly, we’re behind the curve on that, and we need to address that soon.” The airport announced plans this week to upgrade its wireless internet speeder.

• Cagle is assessing whether to speed up projects such as a planned new international concourse, which would be located where the rental car lots currently are. The rental cars will move into the new hourly parking decks being built in front of the terminal.

“It is a strong possibility that that international terminal will need to built sooner than we had thought even a year ago,” said Cagle. “We think that construction on that facility will need to start soon.” The airport had previously been exploring whether to start building the terminal in spring 2015.

Cagle said construction on the new terminal and could start with a smaller 8- to 10-gate facility connected via walkway to Concourse A. US Airways plans to add four international nonstop flights from Charlotte next year, bringing the total to 10.

• Cagle said he’s not sure that a fourth parallel runway will be needed, but that the airport is pressing ahead with planning for it. A contract for an airfield capacity study, a necessary step in deciding whether to press ahead with the $92.5-million project, will be sent to City Council for approval next month.

“I don’t think it’s ever a sure bet until we conduct the study,” said Cagle. “Certainly, it is a strong possibility.”

• Cagle said the airport has worked to mend fences with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney Monroe. The chief and Charlotte Douglas are considering a new policing model that would use a combination of sworn officers and security guards to provide security.

The 2012 switch from airport police to CMPD was a major point of tension between the city and Orr, who called the change a “debacle” in an email. Costs for policing more than doubled, to $5.5 million a year.

“As we sit down and work with Chief Monroe,” said Cagle, “we really find out that maybe some of our differences, we’re really not so far apart on. I’ve been very encouraged that we really are making progress.”

Cagle said he understands the need to keep costs down at Charlotte Douglas. The airport has become US Airways’ busiest hub, with more than 700 daily flights, by having the lowest cost-per-enplanement for the airlines out of any major airport.

“Our challenge is going to be how to balance our need to be conscious about price for our business partners, but also provide a good business value,” he said. “Sometimes cheap is just cheap.”

Portillo: 704-358-5041 On Twitter @ESPortillo

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