Southwest Airlines and the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association agreed to terms on a new contract that, if ratified by mechanics, would end more than six years of often-contentious talks.
The Agreement in Principle (AIP), reached March 16 after a week-long round of negotiations, includes a 20% raise for mechanics effective April 1, and 3% base-rate bumps annually from 2019 through 2023. It is also believed to include some added third-party maintenance provider flexibility for Southwest.
The AIP will be written up as a tentative agreement and presented to AMFA members for a vote. If approved, the deal would become amendable in August 2024.
"We are very pleased with the efforts of both teams to find common ground on a new contract that is good for our aircraft maintenance technicians and for Southwest Airlines," the two sides said in a joint statement.
The deal came eight days after FAA issued a rare direct warning to both sides that recent escalation in their years-long battle over a new deal was reaching unacceptable levels. "The FAA cautions that a breakdown in the relationship between Southwest and AMFA raises concern about the ongoing effectiveness of the airline's safety management system," FAA Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety Ali Bahrami wrote in a letter the airline and union leadership.
Bahrami's letter was triggered by a Feb. 28 court filing by Southwest, charging AMFA with coordinating a work slowdown by driving up maintenance write-ups on the airline's Boeing 737s. The slowdowns started shortly after a round of negotiations that led to public finger-pointing. AMFA maintained the jump in write-ups was tied to several in-service events, such as a jump in weather-related damage, and underscored that each issue mechanics discovered was documented.
While a strained relationship with a key labor group is never beneficial for an airline, Southwest's reliance on its mechanics--and the need for harmony--has arguably never been higher. The airline launched its long-awaited Hawaii service March 17, and along with it a new extended-range operations program that includes special maintenance processes. The airline also must manage the grounding of its 32-aircraft MAX fleet and likely delivery delays of several more while Boeing and FAA work on getting the model back in service. Southwest's short-term options include extending the in-service life on some 737-700s earmarked for retirement as the new models enter the fleet—a move that would increase the carrier's maintenance needs compared to newly delivered aircraft.
The new, tentative deal is the latest development in talks that started in 2012. The two sides reached this stage last fall, but the 2,500 union members—prompted by a union leadership that said it wanted to send a message to the airline's management—voted the deal down. Among that deal's key points was a 15% raise.