The Situation at Southwest

During the last year, things have gotten heated in the hangars at Southwest. Accusations have been lobbed back and forth between the company, its mechanics and the union that represents them, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA).

A complaint brought to the FAA has been investigated and a letter dated February 26, 2019 sent in response by the FAA states: “The FAA’s Flight Standards Service has completed their investigation of your air carrier safety allegations in case #EWB18644. The investigation substantiated that a violation of an order, regulation or standard of the FAA related to air carrier safety occurred. Accordingly, the FAA is taking appropriate corrective and/or enforcement action. Our office will monitor these actions until complete.”

A complaint to the U. S. Department of Labor includes the following concerns which appear to have been ongoing during the past several years:

A degraded supervisory maintenance culture, which manifests itself in the pressuring of its mechanics to subordinate safety to schedule that “resulted in scores of aircraft being restored to revenue passenger service in an unairworthy condition.”

retaliation against QC Inspectors for reporting “valid findings” of maintenance discrepancies, that were unrelated to program task cards.

Among the larger air carriers, Southwest has the lowest mechanic to aircraft ratio.

The company had flown 44 aircraft in an unairworthy condition as a result of improper repairs to skin panels that undermined the structural integrity of the fuselages. Moreover, Southwest continued to operate the unairworthy aircraft for six months after the FAA had advised the carrier that the aircraft were non-compliant.

Mechanics subject to increasing pressure to refrain from reporting aircraft damage that, under applicable maintenance manuals and federal aviation standards, requires remedial maintenance in order to maintenance airworthiness.

Mechanics were warned that if they continued to report discrepancies relating to cargo liners, they would be disciplined. These cargo liners to prevent a fire originating in a cargo compartment from spreading to other parts of the airplane.

Threatening mechanics with “discipline up to and including termination.”

Threats of a “higher level of scrutiny, discriminatory assignment practices, threats of discipline and, ultimately, suspension without pay,” for writing up discrepancies and bringing non-compliance to the attention of supervisors.

A recent CBS news report highlighted the efforts of Southwest maintenance to resist pressure to ignore aircraft damage and the FAA’s confirmation of the degraded safety culture. After the CBS report, two U. S. Senators called for a congressional investigation.

Eleven days later, a declaration of a State of Operational Emergency was brought by the company. The State of Operational Emergency says, “On Feb. 12, just days after our last negotiations session with AMFA, we experienced an unprecedented number of out-of-service aircraft in four specific maintenance locations despite no change in our maintenance programs, no changes in leadership, and no changes in our policies and procedures.” It goes on to say, “AMFA has a history of work disruptions, and Southwest has two pending lawsuits against the union.”

As a direct result of the emergency declaration, AMFA says sick mechanics who have not had the opportunity to see a doctor will have to work through their illness, vacations, holidays, and shift trades will be disrupted, bid seniority will be dishonored, and technicians will be forced to work mandatory overtime irrespective of their child care obligations or state of fatigue. “Southwest expressly warns that our compliance will be obtained via threat of termination,” says a letter from Bret Oestrich, national director, AMFA.

When asked about the timing of events and the suggestion all is related to ongoing contract negotiations, Oestrich had this to say, “For Southwest’s leadership to connect the airline’s self-declared ‘operational emergency’ to collective bargaining negotiations is simply an attempt to divert attention away from the airline’s safety issues.” Oestrich also says what are not factors in the delays are mechanics calling out sick at an increased level or declining overtime work. “Leading up to the ‘Operational Emergency’,” he says, “attendance and overtime were at normal levels.”

And, as we went to press for this issue, Southwest Airlines filed a lawsuit February 28, against the union that represents their mechanics, AMFA, in an effort to stop what is being called an illegal job action. It is implied that the job action is driving an increased number of aircraft being placed out of service for maintenance reviews of items that have no effect on the safety of flight.

The two entities have been in a heated battle for contract negotiations for months. AMFA has filed complaints with the FAA and Department of Labor alleging failure to follow regulations, pressure to cut corners and threats of stunted career development and job loss if not complied with by the mechanics. Some of these claims have been substantiated during investigations resulting from those claims, as mentioned earlier.

A statement from Southwest says this:

“Today’s action does not alter our dedicated goal of reaching an agreement that benefits our hardworking Maintenance Employees nor does it change the Company’s unwavering commitment to Safety,” said vice president Labor Relations Russell McCrady. “Southwest is–hands down–one of the best companies in the world to work for and we will not stray from our focus on rewarding our mechanics, while we work to shield our Employees and Customers from unnecessary disruptions within the operation.”
This is fixable. But one thing is for sure – it will take much effort on both sides to resolve.