A bitter labor fight between air traffic controllers and the Federal Aviation Administration may be reignited this month when House members write a new FAA reauthorization bill.
Democrats on the House Transportation Committee are calling for the bill to include language requiring the FAA and the air traffic controllers' union to return to the bargaining table and settle a dispute that arose last year when the FAA imposed terms on the union.
But a Senate bill reauthorizing the FAA did not include such language, and it would be opposed by Rep. John Mica (Fla.), the ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee, if it sought to re-open the current work rules that Mica argues were imposed under the same negotiating process used in 1998 when the sides reached an agreement. He would also oppose language that proposed back pay for controllers.
The issue could jeopardize final congressional approval of an FAA bill, a Republican committee aide said. "It would certainly be more problematic, that's for sure," said the aide, who added that President Bush has indicated to Mica he might veto an FAA bill over the issue.
The air traffic controllers have significant support from Democrats, however, and Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), chairman of the House Aviation subcommittee, signaled he intends to address the issue in the FAA bill he is helping to write. Lobbyists and congressional aides said a draft bill reauthorizing the FAA could be introduced as early as next week.
"I strongly support sending the air traffic controllers and the FAA back to the bargaining table," Costello told The Hill. He noted that last year, he introduced legislation that would have forced the parties back to the bargaining table and imposed binding arbitration on them if they were unable to work out an agreement.
Mica supports addressing the issue in the House bill, but is leaning toward language similar to the Senate's. The Senate sidestepped the controversy to a degree by only requiring the parties to go to binding arbitration in future disputes. Mica sees this language as a step in the right direction, according to a GOP aide. Mica also has been urging the sides to resolve their issues without re-opening a 1998 contract through meetings, and through the Federal Labor Relations Board.
Lobbyists working on a reauthorization bill, already complicated due to a huge lobbying fight between commercial airlines and groups representing corporate jets and general aviation, also see the labor issue as a potential firestorm.
At issue is a long-running dispute between the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. Last summer, the FAA declared an impasse and imposed work and pay rules after talks deadlocked over the issue of pay, and Congress did not intervene during a 60-day period of review provided under U.S. law for deadlocks.
Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) then introduced legislation that would have sent both sides back to the bargaining table. LaTourette's measure was considered under the suspension of House rules, but, in a 271-148 vote, narrowly fell short of the two-thirds majority needed.
However, the close margin has made the National Air Traffic Controllers Association hopeful that it can win a victory with Democrats holding the House majority. On last year's vote, "we got within seven votes of a two-thirds majority," noted Doug Church, a spokesman for the group. He insisted that controllers enjoy bipartisan support, evidenced by the 76 Republicans who voted for LaTourette's measure last year.
The air traffic controllers' union has been pressing the points that the labor dispute has led to a wave of retirements at the FAA and made it more difficult for the organization to hire new controllers.
In a May 24 letter to Costello and House Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), 19 House Democrats charged that FAA morale "is at the lowest level in history."
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) recently blamed delays at John F. Kennedy Airport on understaffed air traffic controllers, a charge FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown called "completely ridiculous." She said increased flights are causing congestion at JFK and other airports, which is leading to delays.
Brown said the FAA disagrees with the controllers' union that the labor dispute is making it more difficult for the FAA to retain staff. While a wave of retirements is on the way, she said it has to do with controllers hitting mandatory-retirement age.
The FAA is having no problem attracting new hires, according to Brown. "If we have three or four positions open, we get hundreds of applications," she said. The contract terms now in place for air traffic controllers can provide a $50,000 income at the end of an employee's first year, and a $90,000 annual income after five years, Brown said. "An enormous number of people" want to work for such terms, she added.
The union paints a different picture. In March, National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Patrick Forrey testified to a House panel that controllers have been leaving the workforce at a rate of three a day since last October, outpacing the FAA's projected retirements. Forrey said trainees being hired by the FAA to replace those workers must be trained for an average of three years to be fully certified.
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