Brent Cagle’s task at Charlotte Douglas airport: Stepping out of Jerry Orr’s shadow

elyportillo@charlotteobserver.comJuly 12, 2014 

A year into his job running Charlotte’s airport, Brent Cagle is overseeing $1 billion worth of construction and coordinating with the world’s largest airline. But his biggest challenge may be more personal: stepping out of his predecessor’s shadow.

Longtime Aviation Director Jerry Orr was fired – or resigned – on July 18, 2013, depending on whose version of events you believe. Since then, Cagle has had to oversee construction of new parking decks and roads, deal with a merged American Airlines and worry about state legislation that could transfer control of the airport from the Charlotte City Council to an independent commission.

From 1989 until a year ago, Charlotte Douglas was “Jerry’s airport.”

Airport employees and government officials still refer to Orr by his first name. When he left last year, state Sen. Bob Rucho, one of the legislators pushing to remove the airport from City Council control, called Orr “the only person who knows how to run the airport.”

And Orr, now retired, says he would come back to run the airport if given the chance.

Cagle, though, said he thinks Charlotte Douglas is starting to move past Orr’s blueprint.

“More and more, yes, we’re transitioning from ‘What would Jerry have done?’ to ‘How can we move forward?’ ” he said. “I do believe that more of the decisions that are being made by myself and from the leadership team are unencumbered by the what-ifs – ‘Well, what if Jerry wouldn’t have done it that way?’ It’s hard to manage looking over your shoulder.”

Still, the future is murky. After a year on the job, Cagle remains saddled with the “interim” title. And the controversy over who will run the airport remains in court, with no resolution in sight.

Cagle is both the city’s interim aviation director and the commission’s interim executive director, even though the commission has no power, for now.

$1B worth of projects

The uncertainty about who will control Charlotte Douglas is a sideshow to the biggest projects at the airport, however. Over the next five years, Cagle plans to oversee more than $1 billion worth of construction that includes new hourly and business valet parking decks, roadways, a concourse with more domestic gates, a runway and a complete rehabilitation and remodeling of the terminal.

Orr launched the airport expansion, but it’s now Cagle’s responsibility. The first phase has given travelers headaches, as packed parking lots and changing traffic patterns create congestion and backups.

Cagle said that points to a broader problem with the way the airport was run before: a lack of investment in maintenance.

He raised the airport’s budget 8 percent for the coming year – a move that would have been heretical under Orr – in order to pay for more maintenance and hire more staff.

“We need to spend more,” Cagle said. “I think the growth and just the demands of trying to keep up with the growth caused us to get behind on things like replacing vehicles.”

The airport’s fleet of shuttle buses that ferry passengers to and from parking lots is old and has been breaking down. Cagle said they should have been replaced on Orr’s watch.

“We should have read that better. The fleet was aging. It’s beyond useful life. That’s something that we should have done better on,” Cagle said. He’s overseen the purchase of more than three dozen new buses. “We should have replaced those vehicles probably starting three years ago.

“Should we have been on top of it more? Yeah, we could have done better. We should have done better,” Cagle said. “But over the 12 months, I think staff has been very decisive in resolving the problem as quickly as we could.”

Orr’s shadow

The contrasts between Orr and Cagle are readily apparent. Orr, 73, occasionally wore cowboy boots to meetings, quoted the character Tuco in “The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly” and drove a beat-up city-issued white Ford Crown Victoria.

Cagle, 42, favors muted suits, uses corporate terms such as “messaging” and drives an all-electric Nissan Leaf.

Orr’s office was in the airport terminal, filled with decades worth of knick-knacks such as a mannequin and signs (“This is not Burger King. You don’t get it your way. You take it my way, or you don’t get the damn thing.”) Cagle works out of a newly renovated office off Wilkinson Boulevard, separate from the terminal.

Orr said Cagle is in “a difficult spot.”

“There are a lot of things I would have done differently, and there are a lot of things that are changed that I don’t think are changed for the better,” Orr said. “I think the airport clearly needs a professional airport manager.”

Cagle came to Charlotte Douglas as assistant aviation director for finance in 2012 from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

Asked whether he was talking about the parking issues and higher costs at the airport under Cagle, Orr responded, “Lord, yes.”

But parking problems had already begun under Orr, starting in 2013 when the airport tore down its hourly parking decks in front of the terminal. In the ensuing months, congestion became an issue. In April that year, at a meeting of the Airport Advisory Committee, members asked Orr about the parking “mess.”

“The mess is demand exceeding supply,” Orr answered. “Right now, we’re kind of stuck with it where it is.”

Orr said he still talks with members of the legislature, but declined to give details. “There are lots of people concerned about the airport, and I talk to lots of people,” he said.

“I would come back under the right circumstances,” Orr said – meaning an airport separated from the City Council.

Another key difference between Orr and Cagle: Orr butted heads with his city bosses, and his dominating style made clear he considered the airport his turf. He squabbled with the former city manager over airport security and a plan to transfer the airport police from his direct oversight to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.

Cagle, on the other hand, draws applause from his bosses, especially City Manager Ron Carlee. In addition to his budget increase, Cagle has broken with Orr’s philosophy in other ways. He’s agreed to a plan that transfers the airport police to CMPD, drawing a lawsuit from some of the officers.

Cagle is also overseeing the rebidding of a controversial taxi contract passed under Orr that limited the number of cab companies at the airport to three. Allegations of corruption have dogged the contract, and Cagle has said he would consider adding more companies. He’s also seeking a new operator for Charlotte Douglas’ recycling center and worm compost farm, a program started under Orr as a no-bid deal that ran into delays and cost overruns.

Construction challenges

Cagle said he knows travelers are frustrated with the airport’s ongoing construction projects and congestion.

“Clearly, the airport is going through some growing pains. All of this growth has caught up with us,” he said.

Cagle said Charlotte Douglas needs to communicate the need for the construction and the benefits, and tell travelers how they will be affected.

“I think the roadway and the new hourly deck are great examples,” Cagle said. “Both of those projects, we knew when we started them – and Jerry, Mr. Orr knew when he started them – how disruptive they would be.”

For now, Cagle said customers will have to bear the inconveniences. But congestion should ease, he said, with new shuttle buses and the 7,000-space hourly decks that open next year in front of the terminal.

“I will be disappointed if we get into next summer and we’re still having some of these parking problems,” Cagle said. “The investments we’re making, the pain we’re going through now, it needs to pay off. It’s going to pay off next year.”

Divided opinions

Cagle, who makes $152,640 annually, draws both praise and criticism from those involved in the airport battle.

Rucho, the state senator who said only Orr was capable of running Charlotte Douglas, said Cagle’s budget increases endangered the city’s hub. He pointed to spending increases, such as converting 150 shuttle bus drivers from temporary workers to full-time employees with benefits, as signs that Cagle is spending too freely.

“It left the control of Mr. Orr and went into the control of the city, and the cost escalated, which is exactly what we were concerned about,” said Rucho, a Matthews Republican.

Charlotte Douglas is an independently-funded city department, with revenue from airline landing fees, concessions sales, parking and federal grants. Cagle’s budget calls for an 8 percent increase in the cost per passenger to match the higher expenses. Charlotte Douglas remains the nation’s cheapest major hub airport, but the increase unnerves Rucho.

“The whole crux behind the success of the airport is low cost,” Rucho said. “If they raise it, which they have, it works against the opportunity to keep it a low-cost airport and keep it attractive for American Airlines.”

So far, American has publicly supported Cagle and his increased budget. The airline operates more than 90 percent of daily flights at Charlotte Douglas and is by far the airport’s most important tenant.

The airline’s master lease at Charlotte Douglas runs through 2016, and preliminary negotiations about renewing it began under Orr. City and business leaders prize the hub for attracting companies and jobs.

Mike Minerva, American’s vice president of government and airport affairs, said the airline was involved with planning Cagle’s higher budget and supports the increased spending at its second-busiest hub.

“We don’t like those increases, but we recognize them as necessary,” Minerva said. “Those bills would have come due about now whether Jerry was there or not.”

Minerva said that, like Charlotte Douglas, many of American’s hub airports are undertaking renovation and construction projects now. The reason: Airlines are making profits again. That means airports are comfortable asking for higher budgets. Most large hubs are decades old and need repairs.

Robert Stolz is chairman of the independent commission that’s trying to take control of Charlotte Douglas from the City Council. While Cagle remains a city employee, he also was named interim executive director of the commission after Orr’s departure.

“I think he’s been just terrific,” Stolz said. “He’s come in at a bizarre, difficult time for any professional to step into a leadership role, with all the hullabaloo going on.”

He said Cagle has been accessible and open with commission members, who are still learning about the airport while they await the resolution of the city’s legal challenge to the commission. Stolz also praised Cagle for hands-on leadership, such as staying overnight at Charlotte Douglas to oversee operations during severe winter storms in February.

“He was hunkered down with all of his people setting up cots,” Stolz said. “That’s what you want a leader to do.”

Cagle’s boss, Carlee, also praised Cagle.

“In my almost 40 years in local government, I have seen no one assume a more difficult task and perform as successfully as Brent has done in the past year,” Carlee said. He downplayed any comparisons between Cagle and Orr.

“Jerry did what he did very well. Brent started from a different place and has different challenges. Comparisons serve no useful purpose,” Carlee said.

Terri Pope, American’s vice president for the Charlotte hub, said she still texts Orr, whom she called a friend and mentor. And she said she has a good working relationship with Cagle. He has impressed her with steps he’s taken, such as riding the employee shuttle bus, to respond to complaints about the service.

“He’s open and responsive,” she said.

A year after taking charge, one word is still stapled to both of Cagle’s job titles: “interim.”

Pope said she’s seen Cagle overcome that uncertainty. “A lot of people would be nervous,” she said. “Just that label alone, you’re really vying to make that something other than interim.”

Despite their praise, neither Stolz or Carlee committed to keeping Cagle permanently.

“I think that’s for the entire commission to discuss,” Stolz said.

“Interim and permanent are only words,” Carlee said. “Brent is the aviation director and has the full authority to take whatever actions he needs to take.”

Cagle would like to be permanent.

“I’d love to be the aviation director, strike the ‘interim,’ or the executive director, strike the ‘interim,’ ” he said. “But I really don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it because there are so many what-ifs that have to be resolved first.”

Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter: @ESPortillo

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