It's time to honor Jerry Orr

Plus: Habitat owners fall behind on mortgages; Re-examining doomsday Covid projections; Wells stock surges; $7M Dilworth home for sale; Soccer fans call Charlotte FC ticket prices out-of-bounds

Today’s Charlotte Ledger is sponsored by Carroll Financial, one of the Charlotte region’s oldest and largest family-owned, independent financial planning and investment management firms:

Idea: ‘No-nonsense’ former airport director transformed Charlotte Douglas into an economic engine; Shouldn’t we put his name somewhere?

Jerry Orr was airport director from 1989-2013 and oversaw its growth into one of the biggest single-airline hubs in the world. Charlotte’s expansive air service attracted many new businesses to the city and allowed major companies such as Bank of America and Duke Energy to grow. (Orr photo courtesy of WFAE)

By Ted Reed

Who built Charlotte into a boomtown? The short list typically includes a small group of businessmen, led by bankers and real estate developers, while excluding the man who may have been most important — the longtime airport director who built Charlotte Douglas into one of the city’s greatest economic assets.

Jerry Orr, fired from his job in 2013 after three-and-a-half decades at the airport, today spends much of his time in Seabrook Island near Charleston. He is nearly 80. He deserves to be honored for his key role in building Charlotte.

The best way would be put his name on some portion of the airport’s ongoing $3B improvement project. It could be the new, modern Concourse A, which opened in 2018, or the new airport entrance lobby, or the newly improved road outside the lobby. The road connects to Josh Birmingham Parkway, which is named for Orr’s predecessor. 

Orr’s firing eight years ago shocked people, not only in Charlotte but throughout the aviation industry, where he was widely viewed as perhaps the country’s best aviation director. He had taken an airport in a medium-sized city and built it into a leading global airport. The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 produced winners — not only airlines, but also airports — and Charlotte Douglas was the biggest airport winner.

In 1975, Orr, a long-haired N.C. State grad, left a family surveying company to become the airport engineer. By the early 1980s, Orr was working with Piedmont Airlines to build its first hub. Piedmont executives later said Orr’s vision and cooperation helped persuade them to put the hub in Charlotte rather than Greensboro.

In 1989, City Manager Wendell White appointed Orr airport manager. Orr’s approach never varied. Starting with about a dozen airport gates, he kept adding gates and runways while keeping costs low. The airport now has four runways and 115 gates.

Pat McCrory, who served seven terms as mayor from 1995 to 2009, credits Orr for the airport’s growth. “As mayor, the best decision I ever made was to stay out of Jerry Orr’s way and let him create an airport for the future,” McCrory told The Ledger in a recent interview.

“Jerry was the real architect of the vision for the airport for the last 25 years,” said McCrory, North Carolina governor from 2013 to 2017 and now host of a Charlotte radio talk show. “If Jerry had not done what he did, we wouldn’t have a major airport.

“Every headquarters I recruited, as mayor and as governor, picked this region with the airport as a major factor,” he said. “It allowed them nonstop access to the rest of the world, which is unusual for a city of our size.”

Today, Charlotte Douglas is the third biggest single airline hub in the world, based on daily departures by hub carrier American Airlines. (It was fourth when Orr was fired.) Before the coronavirus crisis, the hub offered 700 daily departures, with about 150 non-stop destinations and near hourly departures to key destinations such as New York. American’s summer schedule shows 650 daily departures.

Former US Airways CEO Stephen Wolf once called Charlotte the most over-served city in the world for air service. Wolf described Orr as one of the country’s two best airport directors. Asked the other one’s identity, Wolf said there was no one, but he wanted others to believe it was them.

Abundant air service drew businesses to Charlotte and enabled existing businesses such as Bank of America and Duke Energy to grow into global companies. It also led to relatively high fares in Charlotte: Orr sought to compensate by keeping parking rates low and by encouraging low-fare carriers to serve the city. It was a tough sell, given the hub, but JetBlue arrived in 2006. Later, the JetBlue CEO called Orr “an institution” and “an industry gem.”

Why was Orr fired?

In 2013, the Republican-controlled state legislature tried to wrest control of the airport from the city, which had successfully run it since 1936. Orr, who had worked hard to keep politics out of airport management, became collateral damage in the war between the Republican legislature and the Democratic city council.

As the dispute played out in the courts, Charlotte’s city manager at the time, Ron Carlee, ordered Orr to relinquish control of the airport. Incidentally, Carlee’s three-year contract as city manager ended in 2016 and was not renewed.

McCrory said in a recent interview that a mayoral successor — apparently Anthony Foxx, though McCrory would not specify a name — “wanted much more political involvement in the operation of the airport, in purchasing and operations, and Jerry knew that would increase cost and limit efficiencies.

“Jerry did his job,” McCrory said. “He was gruff. He was no-nonsense. He knew what he was talking about. He was not politically correct. And airlines were attracted to that no-nonsense type of management.”  

Asked to comment for this article, Orr responded in an email: “I always tried to do my best for my people and the people of Charlotte. I ran the airport like it was my own business.”

Terri Pope, who ran the hub for US Airways and later American between 2000 and 2017, when she retired, said, “Many of us cannot say the words ‘Charlotte Douglas Airport’ and not immediately think of Jerry Orr, who had the biggest hand in building it.”

Pope said she and Orr “lived through an era when there was no such thing as a profitable airline.” US Airways filed twice for bankruptcy protection, once in 2002 and again in 2004.

During one of the bankruptcies, Pope said, “We were in dire straits, and Jerry Orr came into my office and said, ‘We’re going to lower your landing fees.’ Who else would do that besides Jerry? He was trying to protect the airport, which he saw as his responsibility. When you love something, you protect it.

“I have worked at numerous airports,” said Pope, who listed 11 of them. “The relationship is almost always tumultuous. It’s hard not to embrace a leader who is sincere and genuine and who tries to help and who delivers over and over again.

“When Jerry was fired, it broke my heart,” Pope said. “Look at the accomplishments he produced — it’s a shame politics would interrupt a fantastic career like that. I don’t think anyone deserved that.

“It was wrong,” Pope said. “We should try to make amends.”

Ted Reed, a former Miami Herald and Charlotte Observer reporter, is the author of “American Airlines, US Airways and the Creation of the World's Largest Airline.”

Today’s supporting sponsor is T.R. Lawing Realty:

Mortgage delinquencies triple on Charlotte Habitat homes

You often hear that Charlotte’s housing market is hot, with prices escalating to accommodate the steady influx of buyers willing to pay top dollar for houses.

While that’s true, it’s an incomplete picture. At the lower end of the for-sale market, there are homeowners who are struggling.

Habitat for Humanity Charlotte, for instance, says that the number of its local homeowners who are behind on mortgage payments has tripled since the start of the pandemic. WFAE’s Maria Ramirez Uribe reports:

1 in 3 of the families [that Habitat works with] have either lost their jobs or faced a significant reduction in their wages during the pandemic. 

“They're experiencing some real challenges, as well,” said Laura Belcher, the president of Habitat for Humanity Charlotte. “And that's seen through an increase in mortgage delinquencies.” 

According to Belcher, 327 of their homeowners are behind on mortgage payments. …That’s … more than the 109 pre-pandemic. 

“We are working very closely with our families,” Belcher said. “We’re in communication with them and we're talking to them to try and understand what's driving their challenges and what would help them the most.”

Habitat has about 1,100 homes in Mecklenburg and Iredell counties, so about 30% of its homeowners are behind. Nationwide, mortgage delinquencies have nearly doubled since 2019, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.

‘World starts caving in’: The article quotes a Habitat homeowner named Synora Robinson, who lost her job as a house manager for a family when Covid hit, then had trouble collecting unemployment benefits and had to dip into her savings to make ends meet. Robinson is quoted as saying:

You know, when you have insurance coverage and everything is working and then all that is gone, you're in a big, dark hole. You don't know what to do. It's like the world starts caving in on you. For me, I just wanted to give up because it had to be easier to be dead than to have to live through it.

The article on the struggles of local Habitat owners is part of a collaborative effort among WFAE, Qcity Metro, La Noticia and The Ledger to chronicle the economic effects of Covid on local minority communities. You can read the full article here, or the complete series on WFAE’s website.

Related Ledger article:

How well did doomsday Covid projections hold up?

With Covid numbers continuing to plunge from their peaks a month ago, it’s a good time to revisit some of the forecasts of recent months and see how they fared.

Remember the projection that said North Carolina hospitals could be so overrun that they would unable to treat Covid patients by mid-January? That one’s not looking so good.

The Observer reported on Dec. 11 that “hospital capacity appears dire” and that “Charlotte area hospitals could exceed their capacity to treat COVID-19 patients by early January if community spread of the virus doesn’t slow down.” The News & Observer went all in, too, headlining a Dec. 8 article with “NC hospitals will run out of beds if current COVID trends continue, researchers say.” The running-out-of-beds forecast was also picked up by Raleigh TV stations and smaller publications in Hickory, Asheville and elsewhere.

Hospitals adjusted: In hindsight, data now show that community spread of Covid continued accelerating in December and early January, and that people largely didn’t alter their behavior to isolate themselves … yet hospitals proved adept at accommodating sharply higher numbers of patients: In Mecklenburg, Covid hospitalizations nearly doubled in a month, peaking on Jan. 13 at 565. There were no reports of Covid patients going untreated.

One of the under-told stories of this whole episode is how well our hospital systems managed that surge, by quietly cutting back on elective surgeries, ramping up recover-at-home programs and so on. This might come as a surprise to people unfamiliar with healthcare economics, but hospitals are also accustomed to operating at capacity, especially in the winter, even before the pandemic. We’re old enough to remember way back to November 2019 — before people had ever heard the word “coronavirus” — when Atrium Health and Novant Health were seeking state permission to add hospital beds because of shortages they said were harming patient care. (The shortages received almost no media coverage at the time.)

The assessment of hospitals’ Covid capacity was based on a paper by health researchers at Duke and UNC. It looked at the publicly reported numbers of hospital beds and increasing Covid hospitalizations and forecast that there could be “an insufficient number of staffed beds for patients requiring hospitalization” as soon as the middle of January in the Charlotte region and by the end of January statewide. In retrospect, the number of beds appears to have been sufficient.

Asked by The Ledger how the forecast fared, one of the researchers, Aaron McKethan of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy, said in an email that the forecasts “have held up quite well”:

Hospitals have proven adept at agile planning in responding to spikes in COVID-19 related demand. In response to the post holiday surge, what we saw statewide was a tight situation in which hospitals managed growth rates by effectively making more staffed capacity available until growth rates attenuated. …

Several of our regions including Charlotte have been worryingly close to running out of staffed beds (mostly owing to workforce shortages) at times even with these effective responses by hospital planners. The last few weeks have seen a sustained decrease in new cases, with hospitalizations trending behind. Thus, the high-water mark in hospitalizations ended up being the second week of January, about where we were projecting we would be tight, and there were a number of media reports that hospitals were dangerously close to capacity. That’s pretty close to the scenarios we were describing in our December briefs.

Predicting is a perilous business. The same group of researchers predicted in April that North Carolina would have at least 250,000 confirmed Covid cases as of June 1. The actual number was about 30,000. —TM

South End gets lit

A series of interactive light exhibits went up around South End this weekend. The displays, sponsored by Charlotte Center City Partners and U.S. Bank, celebrate local art along the Charlotte Rail Trail. (Ledger photos by Caroline Mecia)

In brief:

  • Fans cry foul over soccer ticket prices: Charlotte soccer fans are complaining about high season ticket prices for the city’s new pro soccer team, Charlotte FC. The team released seating maps and prices last week, with per-game general seating going for between $27 and $110 a game, and club seats going for as high as $125 a game. But the plans also require a one-time payment for a permanent seat license (PSL) of between $350 and $900. PSLs are common in (American) football but apparently unheard-of in pro soccer. Fans called the pricing “absolutely embarrassing and absurd” and “absolutely insane.” (WBTV)

  • Tent City update: The large homeless encampment off the Brookshire Freeway near uptown was cleared over the weekend with no arrests, according to a statement Sunday by Liz Clasen-Kelly, CEO of Roof Above (formerly the Urban Ministry Center & Men’s Shelter of Charlotte). More than 200 of the homeless accepted the offer to stay temporarily at motels. “While it’s a work in progress, I can tell you that the spirit there is of hope and possibility. … We’re going to ask for this community to continue to join us and others as we work towards a long-term solution of housing for all those who need it.” (Roof Above on Instagram)

  • Some restrictions to end? Gov. Roy Cooper is working on a new Covid executive order that could relax statewide restrictions. Some of the rules ripe for revisions include “gathering limits, the nightly curfew and limits on alcohol sales,” Spectrum News reported. Covid numbers have been dropping in recent weeks. The existing executive order with most Covid rules is scheduled to expire Sunday.

  • Schools bill: Gov. Roy Cooper says he opposes a bill passed by both houses of the General Assembly that would require school districts to reopen to in-person classes in grades K-12 at least part-time — but it is unclear if he will veto it. The bill was approved last week by thin veto-proof majorities. Middle- and high-schoolers in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools return to classes starting today for the first time in 11 months.

  • New grading policy: Some CMS teachers are objecting to a new policy that sets a 50 as the lowest grade they can give high school students — even if the student doesn’t attend class or turn in an assignment. Teachers now must also give 5-day grace periods on assignment deadlines. “Meeting a deadline, getting things turned in, actions have consequence — if I can’t teach them that, then I don't know what I’m supposed to be doing in the classroom,” one teacher said. CMS says the policy promotes flexibility. (WCNC)

  • Empress of Soul: Gladys Knight lives outside Asheville. (North Carolina Rabbit Hole)

  • Swanky Dilworth house: A 5,800 s.f. custom-built house in Dilworth is on the market at $6.95M, which would be the most expensive Charlotte house ever sold if it receives the asking price. It has 5 bedrooms and 5.5 baths, 6 fireplaces, a “sleek kitchen with pops of color, oversized breakfast/dining nook, boutique-inspired walk-in closet, incredible architectural detail [and] maximum curb appeal,” Axios Charlotte reports (with 19 photos). It was built for former Mattel CEO Bryan Stockton, who died last year in a car crash in California.

Loves me some internet

Taking stock

Unless you are a day trader, checking your stocks daily is unhealthy. So how about weekly? How local stocks of note fared last week (through Friday’s close), and year to date:

Wells Fargo stock surges after progress on asset cap

When was the last time you read about Wells Fargo stock surging? It was up nearly 13% last week and is up 25% on the year.

From Investor’s Business Daily:

The boost for Wells Fargo stock came after Bloomberg reported on Wednesday that Federal Reserve officials “privately signaled” that they accept Wells Fargo’s proposal to repair its risk management and governance practices.

The Fed in 2018 placed limits on Wells Fargo’s size in the wake of the scandal, in which the bank for years created millions of phony accounts in consumers’ names in an effort to hit sales goals. The scandal led to scrutiny of some of Wells Fargo’s other businesses, executive departures and settlements. …

As Raymond James analysts explained, the bank has to complete four steps to remove the cap. It completed the first — submitting plans to improve governance — in September. The Fed's acceptance of those plans, as reported by Bloomberg on Wednesday, would be the second. The bank also has to execute those plans and undergo outside review.

“We believe the earliest that the cap would be removed would be late 2021 but believe that it is most likely a 2022 event,” the Raymond James analysts said in a research note on Wednesday.


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Executive editor: Tony Mecia; Managing editor: Cristina Bolling; Contributing editor: Tim Whitmire, CXN Advisory; Reporting intern: David Griffith