By John Crawley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An uproar over lapses by U.S. air traffic controllers will spill into Congress where critics of organized labor see an unexpected opening to push their agenda into sweeping aviation legislation.
Embarrassing disclosures of controllers sleeping on duty -- even allowing first lady Michelle Obama's plane to fly too close to another jet -- have heightened scrutiny of the Federal Aviation Administration and raised questions about the agency's ability to manage its workforce and ensure safety.
Republicans see the furor as a way to force certain proposals into a final version of a $59 billion aviation bill that lawmakers will thrash out when Congress returns in May.
These include proposals to privatize more airport towers, consolidate facilities and give FAA management more flexibility in running the sprawling air traffic system. All are part of a larger Republican effort to cut FAA spending by $4 billion.
"Sleeping on the job, near misses - those give me more ammunition when I go into negotiations," John Mica, the Republican chairman of the House of Representatives Transportation Committee, told Reuters in an interview.
"I think this will affect it," Mica said of the air traffic control controversies, adding that he may seek new provisions in the bill on disciplinary remedies for the worst types of mistakes made by controllers.
Lobbying on the $59 billion aviation bill will heat up in coming weeks. The legislation is already under a White House veto threat due to a provision that would to make it harder for airline and railroad unions to organize.
The House and Senate have approved different versions of the bill and will try to reconcile them in negotiations. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association and its Democratic supporters believe Mica's cost-savings agenda is anti-union.
IMPORTANT LABOR ISSUES
Bill Voss, a former FAA controller and now an aviation safety advocate, said the air traffic lapses have undercut the union's position on issues important to labor.
"It makes them look unprofessional," said Voss, noting that NATCA's influence in Congress also was weakened when Mica's Democratic predecessor, James Oberstar, lost his bid for re-election last November.
Controllers will lean on Mica's counterpart in the Senate, Commerce Committee Chairman John Rockefeller, a Democrat.
A NATCA spokesman declined comment on whether the tumult over controllers would affect negotiations on the aviation bill, or whether a new legislative strategy was necessary.
The union's political action committee, however, is deemed a "heavy hitter" by the Center for Responsive Politics, a lobbying watchdog. NATCA gave more than $2 million to candidates, mostly Democrats, in last year's congressional elections, according to the center's fund-raising data.
To counter the bad publicity, the 15,000-member union has run ads promoting controllers as sentinels of safety. Although critics agree aviation is safe, controller errors are up and there are questions about training and glitches in the transition to a software-driven system for monitoring 9 million flights a year.
Edward Wytkind, the pointman on transport lobbying for the AFL-CIO labor group, urged policy leaders to learn from recent events, which he described as "unfortunate byproducts" of an imperfect system that leaves controllers chronically tired.
Mica, who shepherded the aviation bill through the House, believes the union is too powerful. In a recent meeting with FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, Mica discussed the agency's performance and steps to address errors and training.
"I would favor zero tolerance" in certain situations, Mica said, noting that some controllers simply receive suspensions or transfers if they make a serious mistake.
Babbitt fired two controllers this week for sleeping on the job and the FAA is investigating other related cases and reviewing policies to reduce fatigue and improve performance.
(Editing by Christopher Wilson)