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Southwest Pilots Defend Mechanics Against Management's Accusations

Southwest Airlines pilots blast management over maintenance issues.

The simmering battle between Southwest Airlines and its mechanics saw a new group join the fight, as the airline's pilots union blasted management for "tribalizing and scapegoating" technicians to cover for an "ineffective" operation.

"The last few weeks have highlighted how poorly upper management at Southwest Airlines is performing, how it truly views labor, how ineffective its communication and execution of our daily operation are, and how everyone at our airline should be concerned," Southwest Airlines Pilots Association President Jon Weaks said in a sharply-worded and unusually detailed message made public late Feb. 25.

At issue are "state of operational emergency" (SOE) declarations that Southwest made at five maintenance stations—Houston Hobby, Las Vegas, Orlando, and Dallas Love Field—after its out-of-service aircraft count jumped in early February. The airline, in a Feb. 19 statement attributed to Mike Van de Ven, said its mechanics—embroiled in a bitter contract negotiation and fresh off the latest round of talks—initiated a planned work slowdown as a de facto protest. The emergency declarations raise the bar on acceptable sick-time requests, mandate overtime, and limit non-critical work, including union meetings. "We will be investigating this current disruption and exploring all possible remedies," Van De Ven said. 

The airline's out-of-service count averaged 42 aircraft per day from Feb. 10-21 and peaked at more than 60, data shared with Aviation Daily show. The average for the year up to Feb. 10 was 14. The spike forced cancelation of more than 10% of the airline's 4,000-flight daily schedule at its peak. Southwest began 2019 with 750 aircraft.

Mechanics, represented by the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA), deny the airline's charges, saying specific issues added to their workloads. Weaks added details that support AMFA's claims.

Southwest "failed to account for the weather-related maintenance actions that resulted from of several recent winter storms and an increase in dents and holes in cargo bins," Weaks wrote. "[T]here was a part effectivity issue with 22 [737-8] aircraft concerning O-rings for the engine fuel filters that caused these aircraft to be out of service," Weaks added. "And since the 737-8][ is a newer aircraft, it is sometimes difficult to get the needed tooling or extra parts necessary to keep an aircraft in service."

The airline provided AMFA with aggregated data supporting accusations of "unlawful" action by mechanics, Weaks's message revealed. 

According to Weaks, the airline told AMFA in a Feb. 22 letter that "data analysis confirms that naturally-occurring maintenance or other events could not statistically produce these extremely high Unscheduled Aircraft Downtime (UAD) hours over the course of the past week."

AMFA said that attendance rates and overtime work acceptance did not change in the days leading up to the SOEs. It asked Southwest for more detailed UAD data, and "evidence of any operational disruptions, including any flights canceled or delayed," attributable to mechanics' deliberate, unlawful actions.

The airline has produced no such data, Weaks said.

"What is glaringly missing from [the airline's] accusation is the fact that the company has not stated that there has been any invalid, false, or fabricated safety write-ups," he said.

Southwest has not commented publicly beyond Van de Ven's statement.

AMFA last fall rejected a proposed contract, continuing a stalemate that is now six and half years long. When the two sides sat down in January, Southwest's new proposal removed limits on contract maintenance that were in the earlier, rejected agreement. "The company’s current proposal would delete the entire section in our contract which restricts Southwest from any foreign outsourcing without the union’s consent," AMFA told members in early February.

The contract maintenance issue remains a sticking point. AFMA has asked Southwest for data comparing "reliability rates" of third-party vendors to internal technicians, and SWAPA renewed that call in Weaks's message.

"If management is touting outsourcing maintenance as a critical element of future success, they should release data showing the maintenance reliability rates for each vendor compared to the reliability rates of our mechanics," Weaks said. "These reliability rates should include how much work was initially done incorrectly, and how much work had to be redone once the aircraft was put back into service. This data should be published for past work and for work in the future."

The SWAPA message does not include a similar call for cost data—the primary driver in using third-party providers over internal maintenance staff.

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SWAPA's unprompted entry into the fray is notable for several reasons. The pilots are not in negotiations. Their current contract, approved in 2016, is not amenable for more than a year, so they have little to gain directly. They also are not susceptible to the outsourcing threat that AMFA faces, as the airline does not contract out any flying. 

Weaks pointed to eroding morale and the risk of challenges ahead as the motivators behind his organization's decision to speak out.

"It appears that our management is rehearsing the new Southwest Airlines labor relations playbook on the mechanics that will be used with other groups in the future," he said. "It is becoming abundantly clear that until [Southwest's top executives  depart the pattern, this new formula for labor relations at Southwest Airlines will continue to gain steam and eradicate all vestiges of the foundational principles that made this airline the success it has become. In other words, we'll be just another legacy carrier. "

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