Ted S. Warren / AP
After firing planes and canceling hundreds of flights, Southwest Airlines apologizes to travelers – and blames the union representing the aircraft maintenance technicians.
Last week, the Dallas-based airline decommissioned more than 40 of approximately 750 aircraft at four sites in the south-west of the country, causing flight delays and cancellations. As a result, the company declared an operational emergency.
The unprecedented number of aircraft on the ground followed a CBS investigation that highlighted complaints from industry mechanics who said they were in a hurry to overlook potential safety concerns in order to be able to quickly put the aircraft back into service.
A mechanics memorandum, obtained by CBS, indicated a call to everyone on the bridge stating that maintenance employees could face "cessation" for unexcused absences. This also gave the airline the opportunity to assign staff to longer work hours and change assignments.
Chief Operating Officer Mike Van de Ven said in a statement Tuesday that notification to everyone was supposed to help bring the aircraft safely back into the fleet. He stated that the problems had occurred "despite no change in our maintenance programs, no change in management, nor in our policies and procedures".
Van de Ven has linked chaos to the fraternal Association of Aircraft Mechanics, with which the carrier has been stuck in wage and benefit negotiations for years. He said the union "has a history of disruption of work", which has resulted in two lawsuits brought by Southwest.
The union's national director, Bret Oestreich, replied. "The fact that Southwest Airline is the scapegoat for its expert aircraft maintenance technicians does not bode well for the safety of the airline's operations," he said.
Oestreich claimed that the mechanics worked overtime, but that the airline had the lowest mechanical / aircraft ratio of any major carrier.
He said the link between operational urgency and trade union negotiations was an attempt to divert attention away from security issues.
He added that "now we are threatened by the continued coercive pressure of a dispute".
In 2017, Southwest sued the union for boycotting overtime. The prosecution said that a concerted refusal to accept overtime could result in "lost or delayed maintenance, increased reliance on third-party vendors, and possible delay or cancellation of flights".
This action was suspended at the beginning of a contractual agreement with the union, but the proposed deal was subsequently rejected by the AMFA, reports Bloomberg.
Lynn Lunsford, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration, told NPR that surveillance was increasing as "standard practice" as air carriers solved their labor problems. "That's why the FAA has strengthened its oversight of Southwest during this period."
The FAA began investigating Southwest in February 2018 for errors in calculating weight and luggage centering data. "The FAA will not close its investigation until it is satisfied that the corrective actions taken by Southwest are consistent and sustainable," Lunsford said.
A visibly dissatisfied southwestern customer turned to Instagram this weekend as delays and cancellations mounted. "It's a ridiculous service and it will no longer be necessary for me to use this airline," said the person. "At this point, the horse and the stroller would be faster."