Southwest Grounded-Jets Fight Widens With Suit Against Union

(Bloomberg) -- Southwest Airlines Co. asked a federal court to order its mechanics and their union to stop reporting excessive maintenance issues that are grounding an unusually large number of aircraft and threatening “irreparable injury” to the carrier.

Leaders of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association have taken part in a “system-wide campaign” designed to increase leverage during contract talks, Southwest said in a lawsuit filed Thursday in federal court in Dallas. The union has falsely claimed that mechanics’ actions reflect only an increased focus on safety, the company said.

The airline’s lawsuit may discourage mechanics from reporting aircraft damage, AMFA said in a statement Friday, and has left the carrier “in crisis.”

Southwest, which has been in contract talks with the union representing its 2,700 mechanics for more than six years, has failed to reach a deal as it seeks to keep costs in check. Union members rejected a tentative agreement in September.

“The concerted effort has and will continue to result in delayed or canceled flights,” Southwest said in the lawsuit. “Any delay or cancellation of flights has and will continue to inconvenience thousands of passengers and adversely affect the national transportation system.”

Injunction Requested

The airline asked the court to award unspecified damages and to issue a permanent injunction barring the union from encouraging a disruption of Southwest’s operations. Southwest also sued AMFA in February 2017 for alleged unlawful labor actions. That suit was suspended after the two sides reached a tentative contract agreement that was later rejected by mechanics.

“The court order Southwest seeks also will subject individual mechanics to court sanctions for what a judge might consider an improper write-up,” AMFA said. “The safe course for the mechanic will be to not report aircraft damage. We are in crisis.”

Southwest fell 3 percent to close at $54.34 in New York.

The alleged job action began Feb. 12, shortly after the last time the two sides met in 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.

Not About Safety

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.”

Southwest declared an “operational emergency” on Feb. 15 as the number of grounded planes rose. It told the union Feb. 22 that its investigation determined the effort was orchestrated by a group of about 100 mechanics in four cities, and called on AMFA to act immediately to stop the job action. The labor group “has not taken any steps” to prevent the disruptive write-ups beyond a “single ineffective letter,” the suit said.

The Dallas-based airline accused the union of violating the Railway Labor Act that governs airline and union relations by not maintaining current operations, work rules and standards during contract negotiations.

The case is Southwest Airlines Co. v. Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, 3:19-cv-00514-G. U.S. District Court, Northern District of Texas (Dallas).

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