Groups push FAA reauthorization as inspection officials come under fire

A broad coalition of industry groups and unions asked the Senate this week to move quickly on legislation reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration. Meanwhile, a congressional committee is accusing some agency officials of getting too cozy with the airlines they are supposed to regulate.

"While our individual goals are diverse and in many cases divergent, we are unified in recognizing the importance of advancing multiyear FAA reauthorization legislation and the development of the Next Generation Air Transportation System," the coalition wrote in a March 5 letter delivered to all 100 senators.

That group includes 37 organizations ranging from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which hopes that the reauthorizing legislation will overturn an unpopular labor contract, to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which ordinarily opposes the expansion of labor rights. Many of the groups support different provisions or amendments to the bill, and those goals unite them in their support for moving the legislation.

"We are solely focused on the staffing crisis," Doug Church, the NATCA communications director, said. "If the Senate would pass FAA reauthorization, it would help advance the important issue of returning fairness to the collective bargaining process."

"I would just make the point that some of the organizations that have the biggest stake in reauthorization were not part of that coalition," FAA spokesman Laura Brown said. "We would still like to see meaningful reform, so we support a bill with meaningful reform to the financing system."

Under former Administrator Marion Blakey, the FAA proposed a reauthorization bill that would fund the agency through a user fee system. That met with a cool reception in Congress, and both the House and Senate developed their own funding systems and proposed alternate solutions for dealing with a labor dispute between the FAA and NATCA.

Last September, the House passed a reauthorization bill (H.R. 2881) sponsored by Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn. That legislation, along with a competing reauthorization measure (S. 1300) sponsored by Sen. Jay Rockefeller IV, D-W Va., who chairs the Commerce Aviation Subcommittee, has languished on the Senate calendar ever since.

The Senate bill would require the agency to submit to binding arbitration if future contract negotiations with NATCA reach an impasse, instead of imposing its final offer on the union, which it did in September 2006. The House bill would make the binding arbitration requirement retroactive to the failed 2006 negotiations, effectively overturning the pay and benefits terms currently in place.

The funding mechanisms also are significantly different.

The House bill would increase fuel taxes for commercial jets from 19.3 cents per gallon to 24.1 cents per gallon and from 21.8 cents per gallon to 35.9 cents per gallon for general aviation planes. Per-ticket facility charges would rise from $4.50 to $7. The funds produced by those changes would be dedicated to systems modernization.

The House Ways and Means Committee authorized those changes unanimously the same month the House passed the reauthorization bill.

In contrast, the Senate bill would impose a $25 per flight surcharge on plane owners and operators.

The coalition's letter did not express support for either version of the labor and funding provisions.

"We hope that the Senate will recognize the importance of advancing multiyear FAA reauthorization legislation and make it a priority for 2008," the organizations wrote.

Scrutiny of FAA operations increased last Friday when Oberstar announced that a Transportation and Infrastructure Committee investigation found that FAA inspectors allowed Southwest Airlines to fly 117 planes that were overdue for mandatory inspections.

"What our investigation found is the most serious lapse in safety I have been aware of at the FAA in the past 23 years," Oberstar said. "Thank goodness we are talking about it before an accident, which is as it should be, not after a tragedy."

The FAA moved the same day to fine Southwest $10.2 million, which is a record civil penalty for inspection violations.

On Monday, the Associated Press reported that Transportation Secretary Mary Peters told attendees at an FAA conference that she would investigate charges that agency employees were complicit in allowing Southwest to skip inspections.

"If any inspector failed in his or her responsibility to the traveling public, they will be dealt with swiftly and severely," she said.

The whistleblowers who called attention to the Southwest violations will testify at an April 3 hearing before Oberstar's committee, which may widen the investigation to cover other airlines.

Southwest Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly said on Tuesday that the airline had begun an internal investigation of its compliance with inspections, hired an outside consultant to help with that review, placed three employees on administrative leave and was cooperating with the FAA's investigation. On Wednesday, Southwest pulled 38 planes out of scheduled flights to perform immediate inspections on them.

In addition to dealing with the fallout of the Southwest revelations and operating without new authorizing legislation, the FAA continues to operate without a confirmed administrator. President Bush nominated acting Administrator Bobby Sturgell to replace Blakey, who left the agency in September to take the top post at the Aerospace Industries Association. But in early February, both senators from New Jersey placed holds on the nomination.

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