WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. inspectors would conduct more checks of overseas aircraft repair stations under a House bill approved Thursday that seeks to address safety concerns as major airlines send maintenance work overseas.
The European Commission has threatened to pull out of an aviation safety deal over that requirement. A U.S.-European Union agreement says each will have comparable safety requirements and inspection systems.
The legislation also authorizes $13.4 billion to accelerate the U.S. transition from a radar-based air traffic control system to one based on Global Positioning System technology.
The bill, approved by a vote of 277 to 136, requires the Federal Aviation Administration to increase its overseas inspections from once a year to twice a year, and foreign workers would have to submit to the same drug and alcohol testing and criminal background checks that apply to U.S. workers.
A report last year by the Transportation Department’s internal watchdog said nine big U.S. airlines are farming out aircraft maintenance at twice the rate of four years earlier and now hire outside contractors for more than 70 percent of major work. While most of the outsourced work is still done in the U.S., often at nonunion repair shops, more than one-quarter of the repairs are done overseas.
The European Commission has threatened to withdraw from the pending aviation safety deal if the provision on overseas repair station becomes law.
Republican lawmakers called the provision a “job killer,” predicting European airlines will stop sending their aircraft to repair stations in the United States.
“Our interest here is putting people to work and making this system safe, not doing away with jobs,” said Rep. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., who waved a list he said contained of 11,000 aircraft repair jobs in the U.S. that would be lost.
Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the Europeans are “crying wolf.”
“I wouldn’t want to have to come back on this floor at some future date and have to respond to an air tragedy because an aircraft wasn’t properly inspected in a foreign repair station that wasn’t properly crewed or supervised by U.S. personnel,” Oberstar said.
Another provision of the bill would make it easier for unions to organize FedEx truck drivers and other non-aviation employees.
Since its founding in 1971, FedEx Corp. of Memphis, Tenn., has fallen under the Railway Labor Act, which requires long mediation before employees can take work actions and bars localized unions. The bill’s provision placing some FedEx workers under the less restrictive National Labor Relations Act would benefit the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which has sought to represent FedEx drivers, and rival package delivery giant United Parcel Service of Atlanta, whose drivers are already Teamsters.
FedEx has vowed to cancel a $7 billion order for 30 Boeing 777 freighters if the provision is enacted; Teamsters officials have accused the company of trying to blackmail Congress.
The provision “threatens FedEx’s ability to provide competitively priced shipping options and ready access to global markets,” FedEx spokesman Maury Lane said.
The bill, which would authorize $70 billion for the FAA through September 2012, also would:
_Require the agency to hire more safety inspectors.
_Increase taxes on fuel used by corporate and private aircraft, raising an additional $600 million over 10 years beginning in 2010.
_Create an independent office to investigate whistle-blower complaints.
_Increase money available to subsidize air service to rural communities from $127 million to $200 million annually.
_Require a study on pilot fatigue.
_Require a study on airline pilot training and certification.
_Require airlines and airports to develop contingency plans for how they will handle the passengers whose flights have been delayed for hours on tarmacs. Consumer advocates had sought a three-hour limit on how long airplanes can sit on runways before they have to return to a gate.