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Battle for Long-Term FAA Funding Looms

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Union workers hold signs at Oakland International Airport in California last month during a news conference about long-term funding for the Federal Aviation Administration.

There's been a brief detente in the bitter lobbying war over funding for the Federal Aviation Administration, which was partly shut down for nearly two weeks this summer amid budget wrangling on Capitol Hill. But the larger battle over long-term FAA funding is just beginning.

A House vote Tuesday to approve a short-term air and surface transportation funding bill has temporarily mollified advocates for highways and airways. But lobbyists for both the air and land transportation sectors said they will continue to push hard for long-term legislation to reauthorize their programs, which have expired.

"We have pushed back the tide, but we need to make sure that we remain focused and vigilant on passing a long-term bill," said Veda Shook, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants. She added, "We are going to continue the drumbeat and escalate it."

The dispute over FAA funding has been particularly contentious, pitting air traffic controllers, flight attendants and pilots against Delta Air Lines. Both the House and the Senate passed FAA reauthorization bills earlier this year, but the two chambers could not reconcile their legislative differences. The Senate is expected to approve the House's short-term extension soon.

A major sticking point in the long-term bill has been a measure backed by House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) that would change the way elections are conducted for aviation and rail workers seeking to organize unions. Senate Democrats called the measure anti-union, fueling a dispute that contributed to the FAA shutdown in August, temporarily furloughing thousands of workers.

A stopgap measure approved in August had extended FAA funding through
Sept. 16, setting the stage for another possible shutdown at the end of this month. Tuesday's vote likely averts that scenario, but labor organizers take credit for rallying support behind a "clean" bill that makes no mention of labor union rules. The latest stopgap measure will fund the FAA through Jan. 31.

"We are happy that it's a clean extension at this point," said Shane Larson, legislative director for the Communications Workers of America, which represents unionized flight attendants. In the weeks leading up to Tuesday's vote, the CWA and its allies mounted a $500,000 grass-roots lobbying campaign that targeted 25 House Republicans, including Mica.

The "Countdown to Shutdown" campaign featured direct mailings, robocalls, an online petition and airport leaflets to deliver the message that the FAA shutdown cost taxpayers about $400 million in tax revenues and that Congress should reauthorize the program without tacking on labor union rules. CWA workers also picketed a Mica fundraiser in Houston that they said was organized by a transportation lobbyist.

The CWA and Senate Democrats have pointed the finger at Delta Air Lines for championing the labor measure, which would roll back a new National Mediation Board regulation that makes it easier for labor unions to organize. Delta is the one major airline that is not mostly unionized. Delta officials have publicly criticized the NMB rules change, but they declined a request for further comment.

"This aviation and jobs bill should not be held up over an unrelated, controversial labor provision — all at the request of one employer," Larson said. Delta's lobbying expenditures in 2009 and 2010 topped $5.4 million, according to an analysis by the Sunlight Foundation.

"This is purely the work of Delta," Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said in a floor statement this summer. "Most of the legacy airlines are unionized. Delta is not."

Mica's office could not be reached for comment, but a Mica spokesman told the San Francisco Chronicle last month, "We're not doing this for Delta." Mica has emphasized the role that disputes over rural airport funding played in the FAA shutdown.

Having won a short-term funding measure, labor organizers are now turning their attention to winning approval for a multiyear FAA reauthorization. Legislation to fund the program expired in 2007, and there have been 22 short-term funding extensions since then. Airline workers say that leaves them operating essentially from hand to mouth, with no reliable funding stream to underwrite the industry and address outstanding health and safety policy issues.

Labor organizers are on "standby," Larson said, ready to start round two of their lobbying campaign: "We've won a small battle, but the war is still to be waged."

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