House passes FAA bill over labor objections

A four-year blueprint for aviation programs that hastens the transition to a new air traffic control system based on GPS technology was given final approval by the House on Friday despite last-minute objections from organized labor. 

The compromise agreement between the House and Senate authorizes $63 billion for Federal Aviation Administration programs through the 2015 federal budget year. It was passed on a 248-169 vote. Final Senate action is expected Monday, culminating a five-year struggle that included a partial shutdown of the FAA last summer. 

Lawmakers said the legislation will provide certainty and stability to programs that are critical to the health of the commercial aviation industry, which accounts for about 5 percent of U.S. economic output. 

That stability is also important for the FAA's NextGen program, a transition from an air traffic control system based on ground radar to a system based on GPS technology. The system is central to FAA's plans for accommodating a forecast 50 percent growth in air traffic over the next decade. 

The bill requires the FAA to accelerate its development of new arrival procedures for planes using the more-precise GPS navigation. Instead of time-consuming, fuel-burning stair-step descents, planes will be able to glide in more steeply with their engines idling. Aircraft will be able to land and take off closer together and more frequently, even in poor weather, because pilots will know the precise location of other aircraft and obstacles on the ground. Fewer planes will be diverted. 

New procedures for the nation's 35 busiest airports will have to be completed by June 2015. 

"This sets the policy for taking us into the next generation of air travel so our planes can fly safer in the skies, so that we have the ability to save fuel, so that we can get from point to point and know where our aircraft are both in the air and on the ground," said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation Committee. 

Long-term authority for the FAA expired in 2007 and the agency has limped along under 23 short-term extensions, partly because legislation providing for its funding became a convenient vehicle for labor-related provisions sought by airlines or unions. 

Five years ago, bitter contract negotiations between the FAA and air traffic controllers were an issue. In the last Congress, a fight between United Parcel Service and FedEx over whether FedEx workers should have to operate under the same restrictive labor rules as UPS helped hold up the bill. This time around, a Republican-drafted bill that cleared the House last spring included a provision that would have overturned a National Mediation Board ruling allowing airline and railroad employees to form a union by a simple majority of those voting. Under the old rule, workers who didn't vote were treated as "no" votes. 

The labor provision, which was opposed by the Democratic-controlled Senate, became the principal issue delaying passage. A compromise reached two weeks ago by Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, allows the mediation board's rules to stand, but it also toughens some lesser requirements that must be met in order to hold a union organizing election. 

While the compromise was acceptable to some unions, more than a dozen other unions that represent airline industry workers -- including the Teamsters, Communications Workers, Machinists and Flight Attendants -- complained the deal was reached without their input and urged its rejection. 

"I regret that some have opted to take politics and inject it into this important legislation where it doesn't belong," said Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York, one of 157 Democrats who voted against the bill. 

On another issue that pitted labor against industry, the bill effectively blocks the Department of Transportation from issuing regulations that would require air shipments of lithium batteries to be treated as hazardous cargo. Instead, the bill requires the United States to follow the shipping regulations set by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N. agency. 

The batteries -- which are used in cellphones, laptops, watches and countless other products -- can ignite if damaged, overheated or packaged incorrectly. Fires caused by the batteries can burn as hot as 4,000 degrees and are difficult to put out. 

Pilot unions oppose the international standards as too weak. They have unsuccessfully sought an emergency order from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood barring battery shipments until there is assurance they can be transported safely. 

Industries that ship products containing the batteries, as well as cargo airlines, had predicted the government's rules would cost them billions of dollars. As part of a compromise, the bill gives the FAA authority to impose emergency regulations on battery shipments if the agency can point to a proven example of the batteries causing a fire in flight.