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US Airways Charlotte Hub: Ready for Anything

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Under Pope, the Charlotte hub has flourished, particularly since the 2005 merger with America West. US Airways President Scott Kirby has said that Charlotte is the fourth most profitable major airline operation in the country, in terms of profit margin, after Newark, Washington National and Houston. US Airways now employs about 7,000 people in Charlotte, including a dedicated human resources manager, a system heavy maintenance manager and two corporate communications staffers.

Mike Bryant, the airline's director of tower operations, is at work on an innovative project to determine whether hub operations around the world might benefit from a new approach in which aircraft remain at the gate longer, rather than moving as quickly as possible into a line to await take off. The change could result in a bit more time before flights close their doors, leading to fewer missed connections and mishandled bags. But hub management, involving hundreds of daily departures by various airlines, is a complex field and Bryant is at the early stage of his research.

Perhaps the biggest concern for the Charlotte hub is not the increased traffic that would result from a merger, but rather the potential retirement of Jerry Orr, 71, longtime director of Charlotte/Douglas International Airport. Orr is recognized as one of the country's best airport managers. In many cities, airport integrity is challenged by local government officials who look enviously at airport revenue and wonder why they do not have more control over it. Orr, airport manager since 1989, is largely able to resist political interference with the airport's $85 million annual budget, paid entirely by airport operations. But who is to say that a younger, less-established successor could do the same?

Pope spoke about Orr, telling her managers: "He has been our biggest advocate and our best partner. He is the best aviation director in the industry (because) he has always felt that if he could produce the best product at the lowest possible price, he has succeeded." At less than a dollar per passenger, Charlotte has the lowest per-passenger charge of any major U.S. airport.

As widely respected as Orr is, Pope nevertheless told her employees: "(Even) if you don't know him, you need to stop him and sincerely thank him. I don't think (anyone) can hear that enough. We are successful in Charlotte largely because of him."

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

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