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Southwest Takes Fight With Mechanics To Federal Court

Operational emergency declaration spreads to fifth station as aircraft out-of-service count remains high.

Southwest Airlines has asked a federal court to intervene in its battle with mechanics by forcing them to stop writing up minor maintenance issues as part of what the airline claims is an illegal job action designed to wreak havoc on the airline's operations.

In a Feb. 28 filing before the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, the Dallas-based carrier laid out its case that the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) is coordinating the campaign as part of ongoing and contentious contract talks that began in mid-2012. The latest trouble began Feb. 12, less than a week after the most recent mediated negotiation session between the two parties ended with each accusing the other of bad-faith bargaining. 

"Southwest began to experience an unprecedented number of aircraft out of service, despite no change in leadership and no change in policies or procedures," the airline said in its filing. "Given the timing of the recent…negotiations and the nature of the write-ups, it appeared that AMFA and its members were organizing and encouraging Southwest mechanics to unnecessarily write up maintenance issues in order to remove aircraft from service and disrupt Southwest’s operations in an effort to gain an advantage in contract negotiations."

Southwest's out-of-aircraft (OOA) count, which averages about 14 per day during normal operations, jumped to 35 on Feb. 12, and has been higher each day since, peaking at 62 on Feb. 19. The last reported figure was 51 on Feb. 27, and shows "no signs of abating," the airline said. 

The carrier's 752-aircraft fleet can withstand about 35 aircraft out of service and still complete its schedule, the airline said. "Anytime Southwest has more than 35 aircraft out of service, it is impossible…to meet its customer service obligations," it added. At their peaks, the OOA counts forced Southwest to cancel more than 10% of its 4,000 daily departures.

Southwest said the out-of-service counts far exceed anything in the last three years. The OOA count during the emergency engine fan-blade inspections in April 2018 peaked at about 40, the airline said, as did the counts following major hail storms in Denver last May and August that grounded "dozens" of aircraft for immediate checks. "Based on data going back three years, the current number of out-of-service aircraft cannot be explained by any normal event," the airline said.

Southwest responded by declaring operational emergencies at its Houston Hobby, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Orlando stations on Feb. 16. It then added Dallas Love Field on Feb. 19 and Los Angeles on Feb. 27. 

"The operational emergency essentially called for all hands on deck to address the increased workload created by the spike in maintenance write-ups," the airline said. "During the operational emergency, mechanics were required to provide a doctor’s note if they called out sick, and only existing vacation requests were permitted."

Southwest said it detected "and uptick on cosmetic and other minor maintenance write-ups that do not have an effect on the safety of flight" in the days following the last round of talks. "For instance, the number of write-ups for minor interior systems—i.e., a missing row number on an airline that does not assign seats—spiked almost 400% to 500% after Feb. 10."

AMFA insists its 2,400 Southwest mechanics are working by the book. "No matter how small an issue we may find with an aircraft, we have an obligation mandated by operation of our FAA issued licenses to repair it and make the aircraft airworthy," national director Bret Oestreich said Feb. 20. AMFA cites a confluence of events, including spare parts shortages and an uptick in weather-related damage, as the reason so many aircraft need service simultaneously. 

The Southwest Airline Pilots Association came out in support of the mechanics on Feb. 25, accusing the airline's executives of "tribalizing and scapegoating" technicians by blaming them for the fleet disruptions.

Southwest believes a subset of AMFA mechanics are organizing "something coordinated" to disrupt the operation. The airline has asked the court find AMFA in violation of the Railway Labor Act, and order mechanics "to immediately cease and desist" the illegal job action. The airline also wants financial compensation, "including but not limited to the costs of obtaining necessary third party vendor coverage due to the coordinated increase in write-ups."

The spat between the airline and AMFA centers on a third-party work provision introduced during the most recent talks. The airline says it wants to move work currently sent to third-party shops in the U.S. to foreign vendors, and use some of the cost savings to increase its offer to AMFA. The union said the change "would delete the entire section in our contract which restricts Southwest from any foreign outsourcing without the union’s consent."

The lawsuit "does not alter our goal of reaching an agreement that benefits" the mechanics, Southwest vp-Labor Relations Russell McCrady said. "[We] will not stray from our dedicated focus on rewarding our mechanics, while we work to shield our employees and customers from unnecessary disruptions within the operation.”

The two sides remain in National Labor Relations Board mediation, which prohibits strikes or coordinated job actions. The next round of talks are slated for March 12-14.

The suit is the second in two years between the two parties. In February 2017, Southwest accused mechanics at its Dallas Love Field station of an overtime boycott. That case remains in court.

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