Thirty-five years ago, President Ronald Reagan parted ways with the nation’s air traffic controllers, and now they are prepared to return the favor, the head of their union told Congress on Wednesday.
Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, told the House Transportation Committee that his union supports legislation that would move his members to a private, nonprofit corporation that would supervise 50,000 U.S. flights each day.
The House bill to create the federally chartered corporation would transfer about 38,000 federal workers, including 14,000 controllers who now work for the Federal Aviation Administration. With the workforce would go a mega-project called NextGen, a modernization of the air system that will cost at least $40 billion.
Rinaldi said that he doubted modernization of the current antiquated system would progress expeditiously if left in the FAA’s hands.
Moving the operation to a corporation that would draw its revenue from user fees would free it from dependence on the instabilities of Congress.
“Our 24/7 aviation system has been challenged by 23 extensions in authorization, a partial shutdown, a complete government shutdown, as well as numerous threatened shutdowns,” Rinaldi testified. “Aviation safety should not come second to defunding Obamacare, Planned Parenthood, Syrian refugees or gun control or any other important issue that comes before the body.”
The transformation of the way in which aircraft travel is controlled comes in a six-year reauthorization bill for the FAA that also would require airlines to refund baggage fees if bags are overdue by more than 24 hours, prohibit in-flight cellphone calls and require the FAA to move more quickly in regulating small drones.
Facing a March 31 deadline, Congress must pass a new bill to fund the FAA or extend the current legislation.
Gaining traction for the bill during a presidential election year, when Congress traditionally slows to a crawl, will be Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster’s challenge, but the Pennsylvania Republican holds out hope after devoting more than a year to building support among stakeholders.
While House Republicans are reluctant to separate the controller and NextGen divestiture from the larger FAA bill, stiff opposition from some Democrats already has surfaced.
The committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (Ore.), meeting with reporters before Wednesday’s session, said creating a nonprofit corporation to govern the controllers and implement the $40 billion NextGen program would have a “dramatic impact on the flying public.”
“They’ll make the point that it’s nonprofit; doesn’t matter, it’s a corporation,” DeFazio said. “There is no elected member of Congress who will have any say over that.”
The hearing drew a trio of supporters of the bill to the witness table — the controllers group, the industry group Airlines for America and the Reason Foundation — and one opponent, the National Business Aviation Association.
The business fliers say they fear that the new corporation’s board would be too heavy with commercial airline interests, who would tailor a system to suit their purposes, perhaps at the expense of those who fly their own planes.
Another opponent, Delta Air Lines, has broken ranks with the other major U.S. carriers.
NATCA was a union born in a tumultuous era. In August 1981, talks collapsed between the union that then represented nearly 13,000 controllers and the FAA.
The controllers walked off the job, and about 7,000 flights were canceled in the height of the summer travel season.
Reagan called the walkout illegal and ordered the strikers back to work. When most refused, he fired 11,345 of them and their union was decertified.
Six years later, the association was formed to represent the replacement workers, with the promise that it would not strike illegally.
But without the leverage of a strike threat, the union’s contentious contract battles came to a head in 2005, when it could not reach agreement with the George W. Bush administration.
Rebuffed in its appeal to the Federal Labor Relations Authority, NATCA had no choice but to accept contract terms dictated by the FAA.
Rinaldi came of age as a NATCA executive during that period, ascending to the union’s top job the same year President Obama took office.
The new administration made it clear that it did not want to wage war with unions, and recent years have seen such a symbiotic relationship between the union and the FAA that when reporters made a call to one of them, there were occasions when their call was returned by the other.
If the bill passes, Rinaldi’s union would be subject to binding arbitration in contract negotiations with the new corporation.
The current NATCA-FAA contract would remain in force, and wages and benefits would continue under its terms.
The FAA has been silent publicly about the proposal that would cost it about 80 percent of its workforce and remove from its supervision the keystone NextGen program.
Its silence has been governed by the fact that neither the White House nor Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has weighed in beyond saying it would take time to “digest the ideas.”