Reports rang out yesterday that Southwest Airlines was experiencing a heavy volume of delays and cancellations. No wonder: the weather was pretty fierce, especially on the east coast, and flights were grounded not only by Southwest but across the air travel spectrum. But if you’ve been paying attention, there’s another layer to the friendly, Dallas-based airline’s issues: Southwest finds itself locked in a struggle with the union representing its mechanics. Tensions have been growing, and service appears to be suffering. Whose fault that is depends on who you ask.
The dispute stems from the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association’s outcry that its members are facing increasing pressure to turn the other cheek when it comes to possible safety issues. That came to light in this February 4 national story from CBS News. It features mechanics saying colleagues have been suspended for a month or more for things like pointing out issues that were outside the scope of what they were working on. The seven-minute spot has Southwest looking like a high-pressure operator, with mechanics told to keep their heads down, fix what they’re fixing, and get the planes back up in the air. Southwest, of course, says it takes any maintenance issues brought to its attention seriously.
It’s important to note here a couple things.One, that Southwest isn’t the only airline mentioned in that story. American Airlines catches some scrutiny in CBS’ reporting, as well. These things are also coming to light as the mechanics union is locked into negotiations with Southwest for better pay and benefits. The union is doing its best to separate the negotiations from what it calls a “degradation of safety culture.”
Things escalated with Southwest late last week. In a memo, the airline said mechanics who didn’t show up and who didn’t have a doctor’s note were risking firing. Then on Tuesday, in a statement attributed to Chief Operating Officer Mike Van de Ven, the company brought up those ongoing negotiations while blaming the union for out-of-service aircrafts and, by extension, a growing number of grounded flights and delays. Van de Ven issued an “all hands” response. He pointed out the mechanic union’s “history of work disruptions” and said the company would be investigating and considering “all possible remedies.”
Mother Nature did its thing yesterday, and Southwest had to cancel some 440 flights, a number influenced by the weather but also higher than any other airline. Amid all the delays, the union fired back in a post on Medium. It said Southwest has started to cede to media reports and pressure from a couple of U.S. senators by being “more self-conscious” about avoiding maintenance issues, meaning more planes have been taken out of the air. This is not a matter of mechanics feigning illness, says the union:
However what is not a factor for the delays are AMTs calling out sick at an increased level or them declining overtime work. Leading up to the so-called “Operational Emergency,” attendance and overtime were at normal levels. Additionally, since the “Operational Emergency,” all AMFA members have been ready, willing and able to contribute, yet there hasn’t been a call for additional overtime by Southwest.
Bret Oestreich, a spokesman for the union, said on the phone Thursday that the union’s attempts to get in a room with Southwest about safety concerns are going unanswered. “They’re not listening,” he said. “They haven’t listened.”
In an emailed statement, the company responded: “We are absolutely confident that our maintenance policies, procedures, and programs ensure the Safety and airworthiness of our aircraft. We continuously work to create and foster a Culture of Safety that proactively identifies and manages risks to the operation and workplace. Safety has always been our highest priority—from day one to today and always. ”
None of this is a great look for Southwest, which is encountering a few more skeptical eyeballs ever since a fan blade broke during a flight last April, shattering a window and costing a woman her life. The airline also told investors just yesterday that the government shutdown is the culprit for a revenue drop to start the year; a bunch of them sold stock anyway. That’s just more leverage for union negotiators, which you can bet is not lost on them.