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Labor Dispute Delays Air Traffic Modernization Bill

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 21, 2007

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 (R-Fla.), 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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