House bill seeks to repair rift between FAA, Natca

 - July 30, 2008, 7:05 AM

A bill introduced in the House of Representatives in late June provides a mechanism for resolving the longstanding contract dispute between the FAA and the air traffic controllers union. It also provides airline passengers with rights to “fair treatment” when facing significant delays due to weather or other extraordinary circumstances.
The new bill, the “Air Service Improvement Act of 2008,” uses language taken directly from the House-passed FAA reauthorization legislation, which remains stalled in the Senate. Authors Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), chairman of the aviation subcommittee, had hoped the measure could be brought up to the House floor for consideration before the July 4 recess. But action was postponed due to a “leadership scheduling decision.”

The House used a similar tactic late last year to extend the retirement age for Part 121 airline pilots to 65. The retirement age provision was also embedded in the stalled FAA reauthorization legislation (H.R.2881), which the House passed last September. The Senate version of the bill is on hold indefinitely.

The Air Service Improvement Act (H.R. 6355) mandates a “fair and equitable” contract negotiation for FAA air traffic controllers by requiring the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (Natca) to return to the bargaining table “under the last mutual agreement.” The parties are required to resume negotiations, patterned after the process in Postal Service regulations, until a new contract is adopted.

If the two sides do not reach an agreement within 45 days after negotiations resume, the dispute would be submitted to binding arbitration. In the interim, affected employees are eligible for back pay, subject to the availability of appropriations, not to exceed $20 million.

The FAA declared an impasse in negotiations with Natca in April 2006 after nine months of contract talks. It declared the contract in effect that June and began phasing in new terms that summer. The union has been disputing that unilateral action since then.

H.R.6355 also requires airlines and large- and medium-hub airports to file emergency contingency plans with the secretary of transportation for review and approval. These plans must detail how the airline will provide food, water, restroom facilities, cabin ventilation and medical treatment for passengers on board an aircraft that is on the ground for an extended period time without access to the terminal.