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Unionizing, Flight Subsidies Central To FAA Standoff

There are two main issues dividing Republicans and Democrats, and the House and Senate, from reaching agreement on reauthorizing funding for the Federal Aviation Administration: a policy on forming unions; and subsidized flights at smaller regional airports.

The FAA's funding is usually authorized for a period of years because many of the projects it works on — from runway extensions to revamping the air traffic control system — are multiyear projects with a lot of lead time. The last multiyear reauthorization ended in 2007. Since then, the agency has been given temporary authorizations, and the 20th such temporary measure ran out in June.

Voting To Unionize

The big issue on a long-term reauthorization is about unions. In 2010, the National Mediation Board overturned a previous ruling relating to how airline employees can vote to join a union. In the past, airline employees who didn't take part in an election on whether or not to join a union were counted as "no" votes. This made it hard for unions to form.

The policy changed in 2010 when the board decided to count only those who actually cast ballots, meaning non-votes were no longer "no" votes. Republicans are balking at this new interpretation, and are trying to attach language to the FAA bill to revert to the old policy. Democrats won't go along. The language relating to unions is not part of the temporary extension the House approved and sent to the Senate in June.

Flights To Smaller Airports

A second issue at hand is paired with another temporary extension. A provision attached by Republicans would roll back part of the Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes commercial flights at smaller regional airports like Ely, Nev., where flights are subsidized to the tune of some $3,700 per passenger.

The rollback was targeted at key Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Democrats are refusing to vote on a temporary extension with the subsidy provision attached, and Republicans won't allow consideration of a so-called clean extension.

There are also some small disputes keeping the two sides apart on the big bill, including whether Congress should allow more flights into and out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. That's of parochial concern to lawmakers, particularly in the West, who want more flights back to their districts. But it's being fought by Washington-area lawmakers, whose constituents don't want the noise more flights will bring to their neighborhoods.

The combination of disagreements has brought the agency's funding to its current state of stasis.

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