The bill (S. 1300), introduced by Sens. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Trent Lott, R-Miss., would strengthen the collective bargaining rights of FAA employees and restore what its sponsors call "balance and fairness" to the agency's labor negotiations process.
The move comes as the FAA faces a wave of retirements in its air traffic control workforce. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association claims the agency will be unable to recruit enough replacements unless it negotiates a new contract with controllers.
The union and the agency were unable to reach agreement on pay and benefits issues last year, resulting in an impasse and the forced implementation of the agency's final proposal.
The reauthorization legislation would force the Federal Mediation Conciliation Service to intervene if the FAA failed to reach a collective bargaining agreement with its respective labor unions.
Further, if the agency and union failed to reach an agreement through FMCS, the negotiations would be referred to an independent three-member arbitration board, which, after hearing the claims of both parties, would determine the final terms.
"The arbitration board shall take into consideration the effect of its arbitration decisions on the [FAA's] ability to attract and retain a qualified workforce and the [FAA's] budget," the bill states.
According to NATCA spokesman Doug Church, the FMCS already helps in contract talks with the FAA, but that does not necessarily mean the two parties come to an agreement. He said binding arbitration, as the reauthorization bill would require, is necessary in negotiating a contract amenable to both parties.
"That is to our liking, and that is what should happen in the event of impasses in the future," Church said. "We're glad to see that."
Nonetheless, NATCA President Patrick Forrey said the union still is hoping for congressional intervention that will allow the union to return to talks with the FAA, to reach agreement on the contract imposed by the agency last year.
"We are trying to work with the Commerce Committee to get back to the contract negotiating table with the FAA and have fairness restored to the collective bargaining process," Forrey said.
Meanwhile, the reauthorization bill also would allow $1.2 billion for the FAA to modernize the air traffic control system to meet an increasing demand for air transportation and need for airline safety and security.
"For years, we've understood that our nation's aviation system faced an impending crisis if we did not take action to modernize our air traffic control and update antiquated systems," Lott said.
In a statement, the FAA praised lawmakers' work on the reauthorization, but did not address the labor relations language.
A Senate aviation panel plans to mark up the bill on May 16. A hearing is scheduled for next week.