House passes FAA reauthorization bill

The House on Thursday night passed a bill reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration through 2011, incorporating language that would require the agency to reopen contract negotiations with a union representing air traffic controllers.

House members approved the measure (H.R. 2881) by a vote of 267-151.

"Today's vote gives us hope that we can get back to the table and work out a voluntary, ratifiable agreement with the FAA and stop the hemorrhaging of our workforce due to what the FAA's imposed work rules have wrought," said Patrick Forrey, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

In 2006, the FAA imposed new pay and work rules on controllers, after declaring that contract negotiations with the union had reached a deadlock. The air traffic controllers have launched substantial lobbying efforts to have the contract invalidated.

An amendment to the House reauthorization bill would require the FAA and the union to go to a binding arbitration panel to settle the contract dispute. The legislation also would eliminate a provision in the 1996 FAA reauthorization bill that allows the agency to impose the terms of its last offer 60 days after contract talks reach an impasse, unless Congress intervenes.

Other FAA employee groups have joined NATCA in pushing for the changes.

"The House was vigilant in its efforts to improve the negotiating process," said Tom Brantley, president of the Professional Airways Systems Specialists, the union that represents FAA technicians and safety inspectors. "By passing a bill that creates a fair collective bargaining process, House lawmakers have sent a clear message to the FAA that it cannot unilaterally impose working conditions on its employees."

The FAA declined to comment on the grounds that the legislation is still pending.

Considerable differences remain between the House and Senate versions on issues including reopening the 2006 contract talks and the FAA's funding structure. The current legislation expires Sept. 30.

The Senate bill, which is awaiting a vote by the full chamber, would require the FAA to go to binding arbitration when future negotiations stall. But it would not require the agency to return to the bargaining table over the current contract.

The Bush administration threatened to veto a stand-alone bill in June 2006 that would have blocked the FAA from imposing its contract terms, and has indicated that an FAA reauthorization bill that forced the agency back to the bargaining table would also draw a veto.

Funding differences also are a sticking point. The FAA proposed replacing the current system of ticket taxes with a user fee system based on a detailed analysis of the strains that commercial, business and general aviation place on the air traffic control system. Neither the House nor the Senate has adopted that proposal.

Instead, the House bill would increase fuel taxes and facility charges. Gas taxes for commercial jets would rise from 19.3 cents per gallon to 24.1 cents per gallon. They would increase from 21.8 cents per gallon to 35.9 cents per gallon for general aviation planes. Airplane passengers would see their facility charges rise from $4.50 per ticket to $7. The money raised would be earmarked for system modernization.

The House Ways and Means Committee passed a bill to implement those tax changes by a unanimous voice vote on Tuesday.

The Senate reauthorization bill would set a $25 surcharge per flight on owners and operators.

Both approaches have met with opposition from different segments of the aviation community, but there is a consensus that the FAA will need additional funding to support a major overhaul of the air traffic control system.

In late August, the agency awarded a $1.8 billion contract to White Plains, N.Y.-based ITT to develop and maintain the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast system, which relies on information provided by the Global Positioning System network to provide navigation, location and weather data to pilots and air traffic controllers.

That contract is only one of the projects involved in the Next Generation Air Traffic Control System, which is estimated to cost $15 billion to $22 billion overall.

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