Two weeks week, Boeing machinists approved by a deal that to build the company’s next-generation 777X jetliner in Everett, WA, where current-generation 777s are built. In other words, the mad scramble that economic development types across the country had put in to try and lure the company was for not.
The Greensboro News & Record had a remarkable article about that city’s attempt to lure Boeing. I say remarkable because economic development officials up there admitted the area’s limitations.
In the end, Boeing’s project was so huge it may have been nearly impossible for most communities, including Greensboro, to meet the demands of building the corporation’s flagship airliner.
“To go into an area that doesn’t have a history of building something this big, I think that worked against every community that doesn’t build a very large airplane and have the supporting infrastructure,” said [Dan] Lynch, the president of the city’s economic development group.
Boeing was looking for communities with big aviation suppliers, a ready pool of employees with experience in building large aircraft and educational programs that can turn out thousands of precision-trained workers in months.
“This project was probably just a little bit too large, too soon,” Lynch said.
I can’t recall Charlotte officials being that honest about the Queen City’s prospects. Rather, we had Jerry Orr, then still the executive director for the newly-created airport advisory board proclaiming that “I think Charlotte has a very, very good shot at this. They’ve got all the pieces.” Which is par for the course for Charlotte in general and anything related to Charlotte Douglas International Airport in particular.
Jerry Orr is now retired, forced out to help smooth the issue of who should control the airport. It’s easy to see Orr’s retirement as a critical step towards healing the wounds that the battle for airport control has caused and getting back to business as normal. It’s not that simple though. A key to building a better airport in the future is honest self-assessment, something that Charlotte isn’t very good at. It’s understanding that the previous situation came about exactly because Orr became too powerful — that the QC’s movers-and-shakers simply accepted what Orr said as gospel. The old airport Advisory Advisory Commission was something between a rubber stamp and a cheerleading section (yes, I’m looking at you, Stan Campbell). There simply was no real oversight.
Control is not the same thing as oversight. What Charlotte Douglas International Airport needs going forward is real oversight, including a board that is willing to ask tough questions. CLT is a major hub because of geography and cost. The quickest way to lose its cost advantage and see, of time, the New American Airlines hub here shrink is too spend too much money adding unneeded capacity. And while Jerry Orr use to talk a lot about how build-it-and-they’ll come doesn’t apply in the airport business (which is correct), his growth projects for the airport were also consistently unrealistically optimistic. From this came an expectation that growth at the airport was inevitable, a sort of Charlotte business birthright. It isn’t. Particularly with the US Airways/American Airlines merger, it could well be a case of two steps forward, one step back. Or even one step forward, two steps back. Or sometimes just two steps back. The airport needs a director and board that recognizes those risks and can communicate them to the public at large.