House Dems seek to force FAA, controllers to resume talks

Democrats on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee want appropriators to include language in the war-funding supplemental bill to require the Federal Aviation Administration and the air traffic controllers union to resume contract talks.

Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn., and Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Jerry Costello, D-Ill., sent a letter to Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., and House Democratic leaders last week asking for supplemental language instructing the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association to go to binding arbitration to resolve wage and other issues.

NATCA, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Professional Airways Specialists supported an earlier effort to attach language to the fiscal 2007 continuing resolution.

The language Oberstar and Costello are seeking is not included in a draft supplemental package the Appropriations Committee will take up Thursday. A Costello spokesman said he will push to include the language in the upcoming FAA authorization bill if it is not included in the supplemental.

When talks broke down with NATCA last April, FAA sent Congress its final offer to NATCA. FAA interpreted language in the 1996 FAA authorization bill as giving the agency the right to then begin implementing that last offer in June last year unless Congress acted within those 60 days.

"FAA's interpretation of the law gives it an inherent, unfair advantage to impose its contract terms on employees," Oberstar and Costello wrote. "Such a one-sided process has been an impediment to good faith negotiations that could have led to a voluntary contract."

They further argue that FAA's decision to implement that contract offer "has had a harmful impact on the workforce, including an acceleration of retirements." More than three veteran controllers on average are retiring daily since the end of fiscal 2006, according to NATCA.

A Feb. 9 Transportation Department inspector general's report said that beginning last April, retirements began exceeding FAA's projections. By September, actual retirements (97) were three times higher than FAA had projected (39). "According to FAA officials, the large jump in actual retirements was the result of the breakdown in contract talks," the IG report said.

An FAA spokeswoman noted that the agency would be the only taxpayer-funded federal entity other than the United States Postal Service to have to go to binding arbitration if Oberstar and Costello's effort is successful.

It would also "remove budgetary control from Congress and the executive branch" and give it to an arbitrator "who is not elected and not accountable to taxpayers," the spokeswoman said.

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