House passes FAA reauthorization, Senate confirms new agency administrator
"This bill is another sign of great progress as we try to modernize the system in a safe, smart, transparent and collaborative manner, and institute a new and long overdue level of reform and accountability of the actions of the FAA in how it treats its responsibility to its employees, the National Airspace System and the safety of the flying public, its true customers," said Pat Forrey, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
The House voted 277-136 to pass the reauthorization bill (H.R. 915). The legislation devotes $70 billion to infrastructure investments between fiscal 2009 and 2012 and raises the fee airports can charge passengers from $4.50 to $7.00 per ticket.
Greg Principato, president of the Airports Council International-North America, said the increase would allow local airports to improve and expand their facilities, creating more jobs and safer airports.
But Kevin Maguire, president of the National Business Travel Association, said the middle of a recession was no time to increase fees for passengers, especially those traveling on business. Maguire said the association would work to remove the fee hike in the Senate. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act included $1.1 billion for airport improvements, an amount he said should make the fees unnecessary.
The bill also addresses a labor negotiation issue that unions have pressed for more than a decade. In the 1996 FAA reauthorization, Congress gave the agency's administrator authority to impose the final contract offer unilaterally if the agency and the union could not come to terms. The new bill would require FAA to seek assistance from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service or an alternative mediator if negotiations break down. If the two sides still fail to reach a mediated resolution, they must go to the Federal Service Impasses Panel for a decision.
In 2006, FAA's then-Administrator Marion Blakey used the contract authority to impose pay and work rules on the air traffic controllers union. In the last session of Congress, the House and Senate could not agree on whether changes to that authority should be made retroactive, thus reopening contract negotiations between the agency and the controllers. The Obama administration removed that issue as a sticking point by appointing a mediation team to oversee contract talks.
Babbitt's confirmation by a voice vote in the Senate came after those negotiations began on Monday. NATCA had expressed some reservations when Babbitt was nominated about his service on an FAA management advisory panel during the failed previous contract negotiations. Forrey said now that Babbitt, the former president of the Airline Pilots Association, had been confirmed, he would have to demonstrate to the rank and file that he wants their input.
But the AFL-CIO's transportation trades division sounded a more optimistic note. "In recent years, FAA leadership chose ideology over sensible policy, evaded tough decisions, and employed scorched-earth tactics with its workforce that inspired the worst labor-management relations in a generation," said division president Edward Wytkind. "Under Randy Babbitt that era ends today."