Congress should move forward with vital air safety bills

The House and Senate have both passed versions of FAA reauthorization legislation.  But despite broad, bipartisan support for a measure that emphasizes air safety and transportation modernization, it remains to be seen whether the two chambers can agree on a final bill in the remaining days before the current extension deadline of July 3.

The holdup is a 230-word provision inserted into the House bill that would change the federal labor law that governs FedEx Express, one of the world’s largest airlines. The provision is extraneous to the legislation, having no broad impact on air safety or infrastructure upgrades.

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But it would help UPS and its primary union, the Teamsters. Indeed, the provision is anti-competitive and would unfairly benefit one company, UPS, while targeting only FedEx Express. Put another way, it amounts to a legislative bailout. The Senate version of the FAA bill does not contain the UPS provision, and the Senate version received bipartisan support, passing the Senate 93-0.

With some 85 percent of its packages shipped by air, FedEx Express is an airline and an express company, not a trucking company. As such, it is regulated by labor laws that are designed to protect the public from a shut down caused by local labor disputes.

Federal Express revolutionized overnight shipping years ago with its innovative integrated air-ground delivery system. Since it was founded, our company has been governed by the Railway Labor Act, which first covered railroads and express companies.  Airlines were added a decade later, one year after Congress passed another labor act that would evolve into what we now call the National Labor Relations Act.

The RLA has two important features:  First, it protects workers’ right to form a union, as our pilots have done, so long as bargaining units are made up of employees throughout a company’s system. More than 80 percent of the employees covered by the RLA have collective bargaining agreements, compared to about eight percent of the private-employment sector under the NLRA.

Second, the RLA requires additional steps by labor and management before employee strikes. The purpose is to keep large commercial enterprises serving the public interest, or the “arteries of commerce,” as they were called when the act was passed almost 90 years ago.

Clearly, FedEx Express, with its network of interconnected hubs, hundreds of airplanes and tens of thousands of vehicles, is prototypical of the type of enterprise that Congress intended to cover by the RLA.  Every court and administrative agency that has addressed this issue has affirmed that.

Conversely, the Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., found in 1996 that UPS was correctly covered under the NLRA, as it has been since its inception.  UPS chose to operate a surface transportation company separate from its airline and 85 percent of UPS packages move solely by truck. FedEx Express, which was created as an airline, transports 85 percent of its packages by airplane. 

In another ruling, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said:

“The trucking operations of Federal Express are integral to its operation as an air carrier. The trucking operations are not some separate business venture; they are part and parcel of the air delivery system. …
Federal Express is exactly the kind of an expedited all-cargo service that Congress specified and the kind of integrated transportation system that was federally desired. Because it is an integrated system, it is a hybrid, an air carrier employing trucks. Those trucks do not destroy its status as an air carrier. They are an essential part of the all cargo air service that Federal Express innovatively developed to meet the demands of an increasingly interlinked nation.”

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The special-interest legislation sought by UPS and the Teamsters would overturn federal court decisions and put our pickup and delivery drivers under the NRLA without one word of testimony from the millions of customers who depend on the FedEx Express network. And it would do so without one single hearing or debate on this provision in the House.

The Senate understands this. It passed a version of the FAA legislation on March 22 by a vote of 93-0 without the contentious provision. It is time for Congress to put special interests aside and pass the FAA Reauthorization bill minus this anti-competitive provision. 

David J. Bronczek is president and CEO of FedEx Express, the largest subsidiary of FedEx Corp. The Teamsters’ view was aired in The Hill in an oped by union’s general president on June 11.