Southwest Gets FAA Safety-Risk Warning Over Feud With Mechanics

(Bloomberg) -- Aviation regulators warned Southwest Airlines Co. and its mechanics’ union that their contentious contract talks and legal fight are putting the carrier’s safety at risk.

The Federal Aviation Administration on Friday sent the letter to Southwest and the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, urging the two parties to work cooperatively on safety issues. Southwest flies the most passengers on domestic flights of any U.S. carrier.

“The FAA cautions that a breakdown in the relationship between Southwest and AMFA raises concern about the ongoing effectiveness of the airline’s safety management system,” wrote Ali Bahrami, the agency’s associate administrator for aviation safety.

Southwest has been in contract talks with the union representing its 2,700 mechanics for six years. Union members rejected a tentative agreement in September.

“As a standard practice, we have increased oversight at this time,” the FAA said in an emailed statement.

The letter was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Legal Battle

Southwest called the FAA letter a routine action during times of labor unrest. “We appreciate the FAA’s oversight and maintain our dedicated focus on assuring the highest level of compliance and safety at all times,” it said in a statement.

The union declined to comment.

In the letter, the FAA said it wasn’t a party to the legal battle and wasn’t taking sides. The agency urged the company and its mechanics to “ensure that any judicial order that might result from the litigation does not constrain appropriate safety activities.”

Southwest asked a federal court in Dallas last week to order its mechanics and AMFA to stop reporting excessive maintenance issues that were grounding an unusually large number of aircraft and threatening “irreparable injury” to the airline.

The alleged job action began Feb. 12, shortly after the most recent contract talks, the company said in the suit. The following day, the number of aircraft pulled from flights for maintenance issues rose to 35 from 30, and eventually hit a high of 62 on Feb. 19, the suit said.

‘Operational Emergency’

The number of aircraft grounded by maintenance reports was 34 on Thursday, Southwest said, although the “operational emergency” remained in place in three of five cities.

In one example cited in the lawsuit, planes in Houston racked up a combined total of 127 hours out of service in one day because of maintenance issues, up from the average of 18.6 hours. Southwest has previously said mechanics have kept planes out of service because of items such as broken tray tables, and the lawsuit cited a missing seat row number “on an airline that does not assign seats.”

“The damage to the company runs in the millions of dollars weekly in lost revenue due to canceled flights and millions of dollars weekly in terms of additional costs caused by delays and cancellations,” Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly said March 5.

The union denied allegations made by Southwest and said it was planning “a vigorous defense in court,” according to a statement posted on the AMFA website.

Counter Claim

The mechanics extended the legal dispute with a response to the lawsuit Friday, alleging labor-law violations and defamation.

The Dallas-based airline violated the Railway Labor Act by requiring workers “alleging illness” would be required to provide a doctor’s note on their first day back, and warning that workers refusing overtime could face firing -- provisions not in AMFA’s current contract, the filing said.

The Transportation Department’s Inspector General announced it was auditing issues with Southwest’s maintenance and FAA’s oversight of the carrier last June.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.