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Deal on FAA bill targets unions, adds DC flights

WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration would get a four-year authorization after years of temporary extensions, under a compromise that congressional negotiators announced Tuesday.

The bill calls for $15.9 billion a year for FAA through fiscal year 2015. Lawmakers released only highlights publicly – not the actual legislation – until members of the conference committee have signed it. That was expected before Wednesday. But highlights include:

— Subsidies for rural airports. The bill authorized $190 million a year through 2015, which reflects $20 million in annual savings. House Republicans worked to reduce subsidies that Senate Democrats defended.

— Labor rules. The bill sets a new requirement for half the workers in a bargaining unit to petition the National Mediation Board for a vote to certify a union, up from the current 35%.

— Development of “NextGen” air-traffic control equipment. The bill will accelerate the Next Generation satellite-based navigation system to provide pilots with more accurate information tracking aircraft and weather. The bill sets a schedule for FAA and creates a post called the Chief NextGen Officer to oversee the effort.

— Slots at Reagan National Airport. The compromise authorized eight more round-trip, long-distance flights from the airport, which is close to Washington, D.C.

“All of us at this table made compromises,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who is chairman of the Senate’s transportation committee. “The outcome is that we have a bill that will take steps to modernize our air traffic control system, make the air transportation system safer than ever and make certain small communities have access to critical air service.”

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called the legislation crucial to updating the country’s air-traffic control equipment.

“One of the things that a long-term FAA bill will do is help us continue our transition to the next generation of technology, an aviation that is built for the future, an aviation system that is built to last,” LaHood told the Aero Club of Washington at a luncheon.

The Senate and House still need to vote on the compromise bill before the latest temporary policy ends Feb. 17. The agency has been operating under 23 temporary pieces of legislation since 2007, including a two-week shutdown in August when lawmakers reached an impasse in negotiations.

“We’re going to have four years of stability in this industry,” said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who was credited with reaching the compromise on Reagan slots. “It’s huge.”

The labor provision proved the most contentious and came in reaction to a National Mediation Board rule change in 2009. The board decided that when airline and railway workers vote, a majority of those voting could certify a union rather than the previous standard of a majority of eligible voters.

House Republicans sought to overturn that rule, while Senate Democrats didn’t address the issue in their version of the bill.

“In my opinion, it has no place in this legislation,” said Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, the top Democrat on the House transportation committee.

The compromise to make it harder to get to a certification vote upset 18 transportation unions, including United Auto Workers, Communications Workers of America, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and Service Employees International Union.

“Airline and rail workers would suffer significant losses as contracts are jettisoned, collective bargaining rights are cut and legal hurdles will be placed in the way of gaining a voice at work,” the unions said in a joint statement.

Some passenger-rights advocates were disappointed the compromise fails to include fines when passengers are stuck for long delays on airport tarmacs. The Transportation Department adopted penalties up to $27,500 per passenger in a rule in April 2010 if airlines kept passengers for three- and four-hour delays on the tarmac without returning to the terminal, but consumer advocates had urged legislation to make the rule harder to abandon.

“Something we wanted very much is not in here,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. “I’m very disappointed.”

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., who is chairman of the House transportation committee, said the legislation includes language requiring airports to develop plans for dealing with stranded planes. “We will closely monitor,” Mica said.

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