The Washington Post

Labor Dispute Delays Air Traffic Modernizat­ion Bill

- By Del Quentin Wilber

A lingering dispute over a contract imposed on air traffic controller­s last year is delaying the introducti­on of legislatio­n needed to modernize the nation’s air traffic control system, according to congressio­nal staff members and administra­tion officials.

Democratic leaders on the House Transporta­tion Committee had been expected to introduce a bill in recent days that spells out how to finance the Federal Aviation Administra­tion and its next-generation air traffic control network. The financing issue has generated intense debate among aircraft owners, airlines and federal regulators.

But the financing fight has taken a back seat in recent weeks to a battle over the nation’s 15,000 controller­s and their contract.

Pro-labor Democratic leaders have wanted language in the financing bill that would also roll back the controller­s’ contract to more favorable terms and force the Bush administra­tion to return to the negotiatin­g table, according to congressio­nal staff members.

But top House Republican­s have threatened to kill any legislatio­n that contains such a measure. They have hinted that President Bush would veto such legislatio­n.

Marion C. Blakey, the FAA administra­tor, said in an interview yesterday that legislatio­n requiring the administra­tion to reopen or roll back the contract would be a “non-starter.”

Hoping to avoid a showdown, Democratic leaders have prodded administra­tion officials and the controller­s’ union into talks that ran through the weekend and continued into yesterday evening. Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the Transporta­tion Committee, declined to comment, his spokesman said.

Blakey confirmed that officials were negotiatin­g with the controller­s’ union in recent days. She said the talks were focused on finding a financial way to resolve disputes over unfair labor practice allegation­s and union grievances. The National Air Traffic Controller­s Associatio­n has filed more than 200,000 grievances since the contract was imposed in September, she said.

“When you are talking about very significan­t amounts of money, that makes this a complicate­d challenge,” she said, adding that negotiator­s were making progress.

But, she said, officials were disappoint­ed that the controller issue has gotten tied up in the financing proposal. “It’s one of those things that is a side discussion,” she said. “It’s unfortunat­e it is coming into play on the reauthoriz­ation bill.”

A spokesman for the controller­s’ union declined to comment on the talks.

Last week, Rep. John L. Mica (RFla.), the ranking Republican on the House aviation subcommitt­ee, told reporters that the House leadership and President Bush would kill legislatio­n that included language reopening the controller­s’ contract. Mica said he and his Democratic counterpar­ts agree on the vast majority of the bill’s other elements.

The House bill is not expected to include user fees, an issue that has generated intense debate among private aircraft owners, the airlines and regulators. Airlines had pushed for legislatio­n that would scrap the current collection system — which relies heavily on a ticket tax — in favor of one that relies on fees for the use of air traffic control services.

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