Panel backs language to reopen FAA, union contract talks

Provision would retroactively require an independent binding arbitration board to settle wage and other differences; administration has threatened a veto.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee by voice vote Thursday approved a four-year $66 billion Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill, provoking a White House veto threat over language reopening contract talks between the agency and the air traffic controllers union.

By a 53-16 vote, the committee approved an amendment from Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Jerry Costello, D-Ill., retroactively requiring FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association to go to an independent binding arbitration board to settle differences over wages and other issues. It would be retroactive to affect contract talks that broke down between the FAA and the union in April 2006.

When those talks ended, FAA sent Congress its final offer to the union and cited language in the 1996 FAA authorization bill as giving it the right to then begin implementing that final offer in June last year unless Congress acted within 60 days. A Republican-controlled Congress did not act within those two months.

Costello said current law "does not promote good-faith negotiations" and "clearly benefits one side -- the FAA." His amendment received the backing of 14 Republicans -- including Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, the panel's former chairman, despite a White House veto threat that was issued immediately following the markup.

"The union is now turning to Congress in an attempt to invalidate an almost year-old contract that saves the American taxpayer more than $1.9 billion over a five-year period, supports investments in new air traffic equipment and provides the flexibility needed to manage record demand for air travel," according to a statement from Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, which contained the veto threat.

Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., dismissed that threat. "Apparently everything is getting veto threats these days," she said.

Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member John Mica, R-Fla., asserted that retroactively reopening the contract talks was a "nonstarter" with Senate Commerce Aviation Subcommittee ranking member Trent Lott, R-Miss., who told Mica he would oppose naming Senate conferees if the House approved that language.

"This is the show stopper," Mica said. "This is the poison pill that really can kill FAA reauthorization."

Peters is open to another contract offer from the union, Mica added.

Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn., clarified that Costello's amendment would be null and void if the two sides reach a contract agreement before the bill becomes law and that it should spur them to complete the talks.

A fight on the language is expected when the bill hits the floor as early as mid-July. Congress is trying to reauthorize FAA before aviation excise taxes expire at the end of September.

The FAA reauthorization bill from fiscal 2008 through fiscal 2011 would authorize $50.2 billion for FAA operations, facilities and equipment and $15.8 billion to modernize the nation's air traffic control system via the Airport Improvement Program.

It recommends that the House Ways and Means Committee raise the general aviation jet fuel tax from 21.8 cents per gallon to 30.7 cents per gallon to keep up with inflation and the aviation gas tax from 19.3 cents per gallon to 24.1 cents per gallon to help pay for modernization efforts and to stabilize the aviation trust fund.

The bill does not include user fees backed by the Bush administration and airlines and opposed by general aviation and the air traffic controllers union. But it does raise from $4.50 to $7.00 the maximum fee per flight segment an airport can charge passengers.

A FAA reauthorization bill the Senate Commerce Committee approved in May would impose a new $25 per flight surcharge.

Airlines and the Bush administration have advocated this type of user fee while criticizing the current system of excise taxes for being unfair to airlines.

Airlines contribute more than 90 percent of the revenue going into the federal aviation trust fund while using about 70 percent of the national air traffic control system.

General aviation proponents contend that the airlines are using the bulk of the more expensive and extensive infrastructure at major airports and should be responsible for a bigger piece of the trust fund revenue pie.