After more than four years of delays and almost two-dozen stopgap extensions, Congress on Monday approved a long-term Federal Aviation Administration funding bill that will lead to major upgrades of the nation's decades-old air traffic control system and other safety measures.
Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV called the bipartisan compromise "the best news that the airline industry ever had."
"This agreement is going to provide a lot of stability to the FAA," the West Virginia Democrat said. "This bill is going to make the air transportation system safer than ever before."
The Senate passed the four-year, more than $63 billion bill by a vote of 75 to 20 with the support of 38 Democrats, 36 Republicans and one independent. Fourteen Democrats, five Republicans and one independent opposed it.
The measure, which cleared the House last week, now moves to the White House, where President Obama is expected to sign it.
Since 2007, Congress has passed 23 temporary funding extensions to keep the FAA running as disputes over spending, labor rules, safety issues and cross-country airline routes have held up a long-term deal.
The debate became so heated last summer that lawmakers missed a July deadline to extend FAA funding, forcing the agency to temporarily issue stop-work orders for more than 200 airport construction projects nationwide and furlough about 4,000 agency employees.
A major sticking point was a 2010 National Mediation Board ruling that allowed recognition of a union chapter if a simple majority of workers who cast ballots approve organizing. The previous rule required a majority of the entire workforce to favor unionizing, which meant workers choosing not to vote were effectively counted as "no" votes.
Republicans and airlines pressed to overturn the ruling, saying it will lead to drawn-out labor disputes that could stifle commerce and cause passenger delays. Democrats and unions countered that the GOP push unfairly targets organized labor and has no place in an aviation funding bill.
A compromise was struck that keeps the voting rule but increased another hurdle for a union to hold an election: requiring unions to collect signatures from 50 percent of workers to indicate their support before an election can be held.
Airline and aviation-related unions are furious at the deal, calling it a compromise in name only and accusing Democrats of bowing to Republican demands.
In return for the tougher union-organizing provision, Republicans agreed to a Democratic demand to continue funding a federal program that subsidizes airline service to rural airports. Many Republicans had pressed to phase out the program, which they considered wasteful and outdated.
While the deal will reduce federal subsidies sent directly into program, the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense says a new FAA rule will make money available elsewhere for the program.
"This is smoke and mirrors budgeting of the worst kind," said Erich Zimmermann, a senior policy analyst with Taxpayers for Common Sense.
The bill will support the Next Generation Air Transportation System, called NextGen, which would replace the nation's radar-based air traffic control system with GPS, which uses satellites to track aircraft.
The new technology is vital to help alleviate congestion and reduce flight delays and would be safer and help streamline flight operations so as to cut down on jet noise.
The FAA expects the number of flights to double in the next decade.
The bill also calls for easing decades-old restrictions on long-haul flights at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Western senators from both parties long have pushed to have restrictions on nonstop flights between the airport and their home states loosened, saying the rules — instituted years ago to spur travel at the newer Washington Dulles International Airport — are outdated and inconvenient.
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