Brinkmanship on air safety bill must stop

It’s happened again. You’ve been a temp for years now. You do a great job and no one complains. Every few months the boss extends your position but refuses to make your job permanent. This has happened 22 times over five years, and you have been in constant limbo and are unable to plan for the future. During your last short-term review, the boss eliminated your job for 13 days. Your latest “extension” is up in January and you will face the uncertainty yet again. 

This is how Congress has been treating the Federal Aviation Administration, the nation’s steward of what has always been the world’s safest aviation system. Instead of passing long-term funding for FAA, for the last five years, Congress has forced the agency to rely on a series of short-term extensions. 

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And frontline aviation employees, just like the temp, are placed in endless limbo, making it more and more difficult to ensure the highest safety standards in our skies: Air traffic controllers who direct 64 million landings and takeoffs every year, inspectors who make sure passengers board airworthy aircraft and land in safe airports, and FAA engineers who work on vital projects like “NextGen” or with NASA to reduce the risk of windshear.

Pilots and flight attendants grow weary of seeing critical safety investments and important policy reforms delayed. And mechanics continue to see U.S. aircraft repaired at foreign facilities that too often operate without adequate oversight or safety and security standards. 

Historically, funding extensions have passed without controversy. But this summer, the strategy of hostage-taking, the new M.O. in Washington, not only blocked a long-term air safety bill but was used to partially shut down the FAA for 13 days. That ridiculous act of brinkmanship sent almost 4,000 FAA employees home without pay and idled thousands of airport construction jobs. These workers shouldn’t be made pawns in the games of Washington.

Remember, this is the bill that will transition the air transportation system to NextGen technology — to make air travel safer — and will invest billions in airports to make them safer and make overdue safety policy changes. It will also create more than 300,000 jobs in an economy still teetering. Fortunately, some sanity set in earlier this month when Congress managed to pass another extension that takes us to Jan. 31, 2012. But now it’s time to break the gridlock and pass a long-term bill. We cannot run the world’s largest and most complex airspace by making the FAA live from hand to mouth on short-term funding bills or threatening its staff with unpaid furloughs.

This can’t happen any longer. We can’t allow critical work modernizing our air-traffic control system to be stymied because the FAA is forced to worry about whether it will be funded the next day. Programs that keep travelers safe can’t be put on the back burner because some politicians choose gridlock over action. Just as important, the U.S. must meet future air transportation demands or our country risks falling behind the rest of the world. While Washington grinds to a halt, China will invest $228 billion in aviation by 2016, outspending America by a ratio of 3-to-1. At this rate we won’t lead the 21st century in global aviation. 

 How do we solve this? Easily. Congress must pass a multi-year FAA funding bill — not for a few months, but a few years. Twenty-two extensions in five years make a joke of a system we all rely on, and those who continue to hold hostage a multiyear aviation bill for pure political gain are playing with fire. The controversial measure in the House FAA bill to make it harder for airline and rail workers to form unions is not only sinister, but it doesn’t belong in this air safety bill. Remove that measure, and let’s pass a bill now in order to maintain our air space as the safest in the world. The alternative isn’t an option.

Wytkind is president of the Transportation Trades Department at the AFL-CIO, a national labor organization whose 32 member unions represent several million workers across the entire transportation industry.


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