- The Washington Times - Friday, April 1, 2011

The House passed a sweeping overhaul of aviation regulations Friday, pushing aside Democratic complaints that the bill doesn’t do enough to protect airline passengers or keep tired pilots from flying.

Bill supporters also turned back a bipartisan attempt to strip the bill of a controversial provision that would make it tougher for rail and airline workers to unionize.

The long-delayed Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization and Reform Act, which among many things would modernize the nation’s aging air traffic control system, passed on a largely party-line vote of 223-196.

The Senate passed its own version of the bill in February. But since the two bills vary significantly, it’s uncertain what a final version would include, or even if a compromise is possible.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John L. Mica hailed the Republican-crafted bill as a job- and money-saver. He added it will streamline FAA programs and facilities and increase the role of the private sector in aviation operations.

The House measure would cut the FAA’s budget by $4 billion in part by streamlining aviation programs and facilities, and by increasing the role of the private sector in facility operations.

“The federal government can do more with less, and this bill does so by requiring the FAA to identify savings in a manner that does not negatively impact aviation safety,” the Florida Republican said. “Our aviation system is critical to the U.S. economy, and this bill ensures the continued vitality and competiveness of the nation’s aviation industry.”

But Democrats say the bill’s cost-cutting provisions come at a dangerous price: airline safety.

“When we are talking about investing in air traffic control modernization, or regulating safety, or hiring a sufficient number of safety inspectors, there is no such thing as ‘doing more with less,’” said Rep. Nick J. Rahall of West Virginia, the top Democrat on the House transportation committee.

“Under this bill, the FAA will have to do less with less, and you would have to be asleep at the controls not to see that,” Mr. Rahall said.

The House bill would prohibit new safety regulations if the FAA couldn’t justify the costs.

The National Transportation Safety Board for years has been pushing the FAA for new rules aimed at reducing pilot fatigue. But the airline industry has pushed back, saying that limited the time pilots can fly wouldn’t be cost effective.

Pro-labor Democrats and a handful of Republicans also bristled at Mr. Mica’s insertion in the bill of a provision that overturns a 2010 National Mediation Board rule that allows rail and airline industry workers to form a union by a simple majority of those voting. Under the old rule, workers who didn’t vote were counted as “no” votes, making it much harder to organize a worksite.

“Republicans voted today to stuff the ballot box against workers by protecting a special-interest provision in the FAA reauthorization bill,” said Rep. George Miller of California, the senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

“Our nation’s democracy is built on the majority of actual voters and no elected official would be in office today if they had to live under the rules that the Republicans would impose on workers.”

An amendment sponsored by Republican Rep. Steven C. LaTourette of Ohio and Democratic Rep. Jerry F. Costello of Illinois to strip the anti-union language from the bill narrowly failed by a vote of 220 to 206.

The White House issued a statement Wednesday that President Obama may veto the bill if the anti-union provision survived in the final negotiations between House and Senate.

The overall bill also would ease decades-old restrictions on long-haul flights at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport — a move long pushed by Western lawmakers. They say the rules — instituted to spur travel at newer Washington Dulles International Airport — are outdated and inconvenient.

Federal law prohibits nonstop flights of more than 1,250 miles to and from Reagan Airport, with limited exceptions.

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