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Labor Spat Stalls Air Safety Bill (Read More…)

By JOSH MITCHELL
July 26, 2010

In the 17 months since a commuter plane crashed into a suburban house outside Buffalo, N.Y., killing all 49 people on board and one on the ground, Kevin Kuwik has visited Washington 32 times to push for more-stringent training and rest time for pilots.

Mr. Kuwik, whose 30-year-old girlfriend, Lorin Maurer, died in the crash, has buttonholed lawmakers on Capitol Hill and in district offices as far away as Minnesota, passing out a business card emblazoned with Ms. Maurer’s photo. But though his cause has won sympathy and support, the proposals he backs have become just one of many air-safety initiatives stymied by a struggle over union organizing.

The union struggle has stalled action on a wide-ranging bill whose main purpose is to fund the Federal Aviation Administration through 2012, but which also includes pilot-safety provisions and money to modernize air-traffic control.

The Senate could vote on the latest version in coming days. But passage remains uncertain given several major unresolved issues, many having little to do with airline safety. Congress has roughly five weeks left in the legislative calendar this year, and supporters fear the bill’s chances will diminish with time.

“This entire process has just been torture,” said Mr. Kuwik, who is on the coaching staff of Ohio State University’s men’s basketball team, after emerging from a meeting last week with Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D., W.Va.).

The scene of the Colgan Air plane crash in 2009.
.A federal probe into the Feb. 12, 2009, crash of Colgan Air Inc. flight 3407, operating for Continental Airlines Inc., portrayed the two pilots of the flight from Newark, N.J., to Buffalo as distracted and ill-equipped and brought attention to the issue of pilot fatigue. Mr. Kuwik and families of the victims want, among other things, rules mandating that pilots have 1,500 flight hours of training before they may operate a commercial flight and requiring longer periods between shifts to allow more rest.

The FAA is drafting its own proposals to set more-stringent pilot-training standards and modify work conditions, including rest time, based on scientific research, a spokeswoman said.

The labor issue involves a provision that would make it easier for workers to unionize at FedEx Corp. That initiative is backed by House Transportation Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D., Minn.) and unions, including the Teamsters, which represents employees at FedEx rival United Parcel Service Inc.

FedEx has lobbied against the provision. A draft Senate version of the FAA bill circulated earlier this month excludes the provision that would affect FedEx.

FedEX says the unionization proposal would improperly place the company under a labor law that isn’t intended for the kind of integrated ground and air network it employs. FedEx spokesman Maury Lane said the bill is an effort to reduce the company’s reliability by allowing work disruptions, such as strikes, in key locations of its network.

Jim Berard, a spokesman for Mr. Oberstar, said the FAA legislation is a “comprehensive bill.” He added that the legislation “is the proper vehicle for any change in regulation.”

The Obama administration hasn’t taken a stance on the FedEx provision or the full bill.

Ken Hall, vice president and package-division director of the Teamsters, which is pushing for the FedEx provision, which would allow employees to unionize locally instead of just on the national level, said the provision would address a serious issue. “We’re talking about disenfranchising the rights of 100,000 employees in this country,” he said.

Rep. Christopher Lee (R., N.Y.), who took office weeks before the Colgan crash and lives about three miles from the site, has worked with victims’ families on the safety issue.

“The frustrating part for me,” he said, “is that there’s issues like labor positions and unionization of workers—not even pilots, but drivers—that have nothing to do with safety on airlines, and this is what’s holding up the matter.”

Posted by Admin on 07/26 at 08:27 AM
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