Chairman Perl retires from Memphis-Shelby Airport Authority
December 20, 2012
By Wayne Risher
Thursday, December 20, 2012
Arnold Perl, long-serving board chairman of the lately embattled Memphis International Airport, abruptly retired Thursday.
After more than 30 years as a board member and 16 years as chairman of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority, Perl, 73, said he was stepping down immediately in the best interest of the airport, his family and his law practice.
Perl denied the departure was prompted by public criticism of airfares, historically among the nation's highest, and shrinking service by hub operator Delta Air Lines.
Regarding the critics, he said, "While some have charged this distinguished Airport Authority with doing nothing, with protecting Delta at the expense of getting more or new service from other carriers, or maintaining a fortress hub to the detriment of the consumer, airlines make business decisions, whether it be in Cincinnati or in Memphis. People can have their own opinions, but they cannot have their own facts."
A Facebook page, Delta Does Memphis, has attracted more than 5,800 members since last summer, many of them slinging barbs as much at the authority's leadership as at Delta. Earlier this month, an anonymous group bankrolled billboards with the theme "Runway Robbery" around the Interstate 240 loop, complaining about airfare and service issues.
Perl said he had planned to retire at the same time as president and CEO Larry Cox, whose retirement is slated for July 2014. He decided to leave earlier so his successor would have 18 months to learn the job under the tutelage of Cox, whom he called "the best airport executive in the United States."
The remaining six board members said they were stunned and shocked by Perl's departure, rendering them unprepared to follow the chairman's final recommendation, that they move immediately to elect another chairman.
They asked Perl to reconsider, but he said he had prayed about it and his decision was irrevocable. "There should be some time that now is more 'my time,'" he said.
"This is an unbelievable and frankly depressing surprise," board member John W. Stokes Jr. said. "Fill your shoes? Are you kidding me? No way. I don't mind telling you it's a downer for me to know you're not going to be here."
Board member Ruby Wharton, wife of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, said no one on the board had counseled Perl to leave. "I'm not sure your decision is what is best in a real sense," she added.
The next regularly scheduled board meeting on Jan. 17 is soon enough to fill the vacancy, board members said.
Until then, vice chairmen will take the lead. Stokes, a Raymond James/Morgan Keegan executive, serves through Dec. 31. Retired First Tennessee Bank executive Herbert H. Hilliard is 2013 vice chairman.
Perl, a labor relations lawyer, was first appointed to the board by then city mayor Dick Hackett in 1982 and became chairman in 1996 after the retirement of former chairman Jim McGehee. Perl was reappointed to the board by city mayor Wharton for a seven-year term in 2010 and was re-elected a year ago to a five-year term as board chairman.
General counsel Brian Kuhn said Airport Authority rules stipulate that the board elect one of its members to serve out the four years remaining on Perl's term as chairman.
It was unclear how quickly Wharton might move to fill the vacancy and whether that person might figure in the selection of the next chairman. The mayor was not immediately available for comment. Wharton has taken a lead role in addressing passenger air service woes by hiring his own consultant and convening a task force of the region's mayors.
The Airport Authority term of Ruby Wharton runs through Dec. 31, but board members serve until a successor is named. The mayor's wife was an appointee of former city mayor W.W. Herenton.
Other commissioners, who all serve as unpaid volunteers, are Jon Thompson, owner of Columbine Holdings Investments; Jim Keras, owner of Jim Keras Nissan; and Jack Sammons, president of AMPRO Industries.
Perl is an attorney with the Glankler Brown firm and served as chairman of the public board that oversaw construction of the FedExForum.
He joined Glankler Brown, led by former longtime airport authority counsel Grattan Brown, in October 2010. The career move raised questions about airport legal work done by the firm but a public record request by The Commercial Appeal showed the firm's airport business declined sharply after Perl joined the firm.
Perl said his proudest accomplishments included the opening of the 11,100-foot world runway, which helped attract a now-suspended nonstop flight to Amsterdam, and a land swap that moved the Tennessee Air National Guard to a new base and allowed the FedEx Express world hub to expand at the old base on Democrat.
More recently, Perl and the airport have faced a series of flight reductions by Delta after the 2008 merger between Delta and Northwest Airlines made Memphis increasingly redundant in Delta's network planning. Delta and Northwest together operated 238 flights just before the merger. Delta will go from 115 daily departures to 94 from Memphis on Jan. 3.
"It's never going to be a hub again like it was when we had 200 to 250 departures a day," Perl said.
"Given our past record of sustained success and accomplishments, it is especially troubling to face today the dynamic of diminished air service and higher fares. It can best be explained by financial forces, which are largely beyond our control."
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