On the eve of its six-week summer recess, Congress on July 30 agreed to extend until Sept. 30 programs funding the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), leaving in limbo a controversial provision that would change the labor law governing FedEx Corp.'s air express unit.
The legislation, passed by the House on Thursday and the Senate on Friday, is considered a less comprehensive version than many lawmakers originally hoped for. The legislation raises minimum experience and training requirements for new airline pilots. It also brings commuter airlines under tighter scrutiny both within the FAA and from their larger airline partners.
The provisions addressing the safety of commuter airline operations came out of an investigation into the February 2009 crash of Colgan Air flight 3407, operating for Continental Airlines Inc., which killed 50 people, including all 49 on board.
The legislation, however, did not address funding for the FAA's conversion to a satellite-based air traffic control system. And it left unresolved the issue of whether FedEx Express, which since its founding nearly 40 years ago has operated under the Railway Labor Act (RLA), a statute reserved for airlines and railroads, should be subject to the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which governs labor relations in all other industries, including trucking.
The FedEx provision was included in the House version of FAA funding legislation. However, it is not included in the Senate version, and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said he lacks the votes to pass a comprehensive FAA funding bill that includes the FedEx measure.
Fight may not be over
Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, is the main supporter of the FedEx provision. He is expected to continue to press for its inclusion when Congress returns from recess. However, some lawmakers have chafed at the idea that a provision not directly related to airline safety could hold up progress on FAA reauthorization. For that reason, some have sought to remove the FedEx language from the FAA bill.
The provision would require all of the unit's employees, except for pilots and aircraft mechanics, to be subject to the NLRA. The NLRA is considered an easier path to unionization because it permits organizing on a local basis. By contrast, the RLA allows a company to be organized only as one nationwide bargaining unit.
FedEx bitterly opposes the provision, saying any localized work stoppage could disrupt its highly synchronized delivery network. It maintains the unit's air and ground delivery functions are part of an interwoven airline operation and should remain under the RLA's auspices. FedEx Corp. Chairman Frederick W. Smith has said the company will cancel orders on 15 Boeing 777 freighters and options on 15 more if it is required to make the change.
The Teamsters union, which has long sought to organize FedEx workers, supports the change. In addition, UPS Inc., FedEx's chief rival, has called for the language to pass, saying it would put the two companies on a level playing field. UPS's operations are governed by the NLRA.
The July 30 action marks the 15th consecutive temporary extension for FAA funding. The last multi-year reauthorization of the agency was in 2007.