DALLAS (CN) – Southwest Airlines apologized to customers late Tuesday as it struggles with mounting mechanical issues and flight cancellations that it blames on its mechanics’ union as both sides negotiate a new labor agreement.
The Dallas-based airline said it was hit with an unprecedented number of out-of-service aircraft at four specific maintenance locations beginning on Feb. 12, mere days after its latest negotiating session with the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, or AMFA.
Southwest says the increase came in spite of no change in maintenance programs, leadership or policies. It has since declared an operational emergency and demanded mechanics work overtime to compensate.
Chief Operating Officer Mike Van de Ven said the airline has been negotiating with the union for over six years and that Southwest’s 2,400 mechanics rejected a tentative agreement for an “industry-leading pay package” last fall.
“AMFA has a history of work disruptions, and Southwest has two pending lawsuits against the union,” Van de Ven said. “We will be investigating this current disruption and exploring all possible remedies. Southwest prides itself on its reliability and works hard each day to get its customers where they want to go.”
The airline said that in the meantime, it is assigning as much scheduled maintenance work as it can with approved third-party vendors while its own mechanics handle the increased workload.
The union fired back quickly, accusing Southwest of “scapegoating” its mechanics in a way that “does not bode well” for airline safety.
“Safety is, and always will be, our number one priority,” said Bret Oestreich, AMFA national director. “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. The FAA has condemned the carrier’s ‘capitulation of airworthiness’ and Southwest has confessed that it has flown passengers in unairworthy aircraft.”
Oestreich claims Southwest’s vice president of maintenance operations, Landon Nitschke, demanded mechanics focus on “compliance, compliance, compliance,” but that “now we are threatened with the further coercive pressure of litigation.”
“Southwest Airlines’ mechanics are working the overtime demanded of them,” he said. “But Southwest Airlines has the fewest mechanics to aircraft of any major carrier.”
Southwest’s stock traded about 5 percent lower Wednesday in the final hour of the trading day on the New York Stock Exchange.