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Think That Hole In the Southwest Plane Is Scary? The GOP's Plan to Gut Airline Regulation Is What's Truly Frightening

The drive for profit in airlines must be counteracted by strong safety measures and tough regulations. But if the House GOP has its way, the opposite will happen.
 
 
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The airline industry has been in the news recently due to the Southwest Airlines flight that developed a gaping hole in the fuselage and had to make an emergency landing. This led not only to a number of traumatized passengers, but to the grounding of flights for inspections and the tying up of Southwest schedules throughout the country.

As Salon's resident aviation expert and "ask the pilot" columnist Patrick Smith notes, Southwest is a "short-haul" airline with quick turnarounds, which means its planes experience the pressurization cycle over and over again, leaving them more vulnerable to these kinds of cracks. And when safety regulations fail to curtail this drive to push machines and employees to the limit, lives can be lost. In 2009, the fatal crash of the Continental Airlines flight over Buffalo was attributed partly to exhausted pilots who had worked multiple flights in a row without much sleep. Clearly, for the sake of passengers, the drive for profit in airlines must to be counteracted by strong safety measures and tough regulations. But if the House GOP has its way, the opposite will happen.

While plenty of attention has been payed in recent days to the safety issues with Southwest's fleet, there's also a gaping hole in the GOP's concern for airline employees' rights--the people who keep us safe in the event of an emergency. Yes, there's a major fight brewing in congress over the Federal Aviation Association re-authorization bill. As the AP describes it, "The $59.7 billion Republican-drafted bill is a blueprint for Federal Aviation Administration programs for the next three and a half years." But the bill is attracting heat because its budget cuts are so drastic as to impact safety--and also roll back workers' rights. While the Senate's version of the bill is relatively standard, the House bill presents a raft of major issues for both passengers and workers, from poor safety regulations to anti-organizing clauses that would make it harder for employees to form unions and negotiate.

On Friday, Think Progress reported on one of the more heinous provisions in the bill, which would roll back several new provisions to prevent the overworking that leads to pilot fatigue, one of the presumed causes of the deadly crash in Buffalo:

But today, the Republican House of Representatives passed an amendment sponsored by Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA) to a Republican-drafted aviation bill that would essentially gut the planned pilot fatigue rules by requiring extensive tailoring to many different segments of the aviation industry, and exempting several others.

Other provisions in the bill--which passed the House--would roll back gains made by the union movement. Until recently, a vote of airline employees fighting to unionize would have abstentions count as a no vote. But the National Mediation Board with new members appointed by Obama, in a major victory for fairness, voted that these elections should be like any other--with no and yes votes being weighed equally against each other, minus abstentions. The reason this type of election is so vital is common sense--people who choose not to participate in the process, particularly in a workplace atmosphere where internal politics may have a strong impact, should be able to do so without having their votes count against unionization. According to the Huffington Post's report on the bill:

Sponsored by House Transportation Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.)—a major recipient of campaign contributions from the airline industry, totaling more than $620,000 in his career—the controversial provision states if an eligible voter fails to vote for union representation, he or she will be tallied as an active vote against representation.

The corporate owners of airlines know they have allies in the GOP, and the suits at Delta even went so far as to allow members of an anti-union employee group to use their free flight credits to zip down to DC to lobby against their pro-union colleagues. TPM's Brian Beutler reported last week that: " Members [of the anti-union group] are encouraged to participate in a fly-in to Washington DC, to lobby their congressmen, for which 'positive space travel' -- free travel for airline employees -- is permitted."

Other standard airline safety regulations would also be decentralized under the House bill. The AP story notes that yet another provision "would effectively block a regulation proposed by the Transportation Department aimed at preventing fires caused by air shipments of lithium batteries like those used in cameras, cell phones, laptops and countless other products." The main thrust of all these deregulations signals a valuation of "commerce"--profits--over the safety of workers and passengers.

The Communications Workers of America has been strongly advocating against the bill, and explained to AlterNet what's wrong with the bill's language.

"The vote by the House of Representatives to retain the unfair and undemocratic rules for union representation elections for airline and other transportation workers again showed the power of big money and the extremists who want to continue the attack on workers’ rights," said Candice Johnson, CWA spokesperson. "No other elections in the United States follow this standard. This is the only kind of election where those who have chosen not to participate in the process are still counted – as no votes."

The CWA and the AFL-CIO point out that if the standard of the bill--abstentions counting as "no", were applied to most elections, the results would be quite different: "Under the draconian rules these Republicans attached to the bill, no member of Congress could win his or her own election," was Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO's statement when the bill was passed in the House.

The prospect of this bill becoming law isn't overwhelming, given that the White House has issued veto threat and the symbolism of a few defecting GOP congress members will allow the Senate--which did not have any anti-union provisions in its version of this bill--to have some leverage during reconciliation. Still, it's another example of how extreme some of the GOP members of the House of Representatives have become in their actions, and shows how prevalent anti-union sentiment is becoming.

As Lauren Kelley reported last week, one of the most vocal opponents of the bill has been Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the "Miracle on the Hudson" pilot who safely landed a plane during the last emergency landing that became a major media story. Sullenberger showed up on "The Ed Show" to decry the bill, saying "people will die" if it passes as it stands. Watch that interview below, and beneath it find a stirring speech on the House floor from Representative Jim McGovern:

 
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