Senate wrangling kills airline safety bill on procedural vote

WASHINGTON — The Senate grounded the airline safety bill this week, a victim of political infighting and partisan wrangling.

"The most frustrating week I have spent in the Senate in my 24 years here," Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, who led the fight for the bill, said on the Senate floor. "It defines what the American people find so inadequate about Congress. Days go by and nothing happens."

The only vote taken was a 49-42, nearly party-line procedural step to end debate and bring the airline safety bill to a vote. But the largely Democratic backers needed 60 votes to be successful.

It was a defeat for consumer groups and labor, which backed mandates in the bill for tougher air safety oversight and better passenger conditions. Airports also would have benefited by being able to raise more revenue.

The Federal Aviation Administration now won't have the money to hire more air traffic controllers, who safety advocates said are overworked and under stress.

Nearly a fifth of the workforce has left the FAA since 2006, plunging the number of experienced controllers to a 16-year low, according to Patrick Forrey, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. He said 2,300 more were eligible for retirement.

"We need urgent trauma care to stop the bleeding," Forrey said at a press conference after the Senate failed to act on the legislation.

Inaction also will delay the agency's plan to modernize the air traffic control network by replacing radar with a satellite system.

The bill probably won't come up again until next year. In the meantime, Congress likely will approve temporary funding, but nowhere near the amount needed to do everything the bill had intended.

The Air Transport Association, which represents the airlines, issued a statement pledging that it would work with Congress and the White House to modernize the air traffic control system.

The irony was that both sides in the Senate supported the FAA bill, which the House of Representatives passed last year. But political gridlock emerged during private negotiations over other issues that some senators wanted to toss into the mix.

Some were aviation-related, such as a controversial pension measure that would have affected some airlines.

Others were not, such as Democratic efforts to add money to replenish the highway trust and for a subway station beneath Ground Zero in New York. That's when politics took over and the bill veered off course.

Democrats "bogged it down with extraneous provisions that do nothing to improve airline safety" said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

"I want the American people to understand this," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. "The next time they're stranded on an airplane and they're wondering why they can't get off, or why they don't have food or water after four hours sitting there, it's, frankly, because of Republican obstructionism in the United States Senate."

Conditions for passage were ripe. Runway collisions and near-collisions last year were the highest since 2001. Headlines have told of unsafe planes and the cozy relationship between FAA inspectors and the airline companies they're supposed to be regulating.

Whistleblowers inside Southwest Airlines testified recently on Capitol Hill that the FAA went easy on safety violations so that the carrier wouldn't have to ground planes while correcting the problems.

Meanwhile, consumer groups are angry over the increase in canceled flights and delays, which sometimes can leave passengers trapped for hours on grounded flights without the bare necessities or the ability to leave the aircraft.

The FAA bill included an "airline passenger bill of rights" to ensure decent treatment for people stuck on grounded planes. Among the "rights": access to fresh water, food and clean restrooms in the event of long delays.

Consumer and labor groups began calling Senate offices last year to vent their anger and urge lawmakers to pass the legislation.

"We are madder than hell, and we are not going to take it anymore," Kate Hanni, founder of the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights, said at the same news conference with Forrey. "We want the Senate to focus not on the partisan politicking, but on the issues that are in this FAA modernization bill. They need to stop the infighting and move on this."

Another casualty was an attempt by Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri to include a provision that would have demanded tougher FAA oversight of overseas airline repair stations.

In a report a few years ago, the FAA's inspector general said that the agency performed little scrutiny over the overseas repair stations even as airlines were increasingly using the stations to do everything from minor repairs to overhauls.

Security was also a problem. The report cited a case in which a member of al Qaida was working at a repair station in Singapore.

"It is absurd to think that we are crisscrossing this country in airplanes that are serviced in facilities with no required standards and no FAA inspections," McCaskill said.