Southwest feuds with mechanics' union over 'unprecedented' number of out-of-service planes

Key Points
  • Southwest's COO says the airline will investigate maintenance issues and apologized to customers.
  • Southwest and the union that represents its mechanics have been in contract talks since 2012.
  • The airline has said scheduled mechanics need to show up for work or risk termination.
A Southwest Airlines jet leaves Midway Airport on in Chicago, Illinois.
Scott Olson | Getty Images

Southwest Airlines is planning to investigate maintenance issues that have kept an "unprecedented" number of aircraft out of service and prompted flight cancellations as a feud heats up between the carrier and its mechanics' union.

Southwest says that on any given day it plans to have roughly 20 aircraft out of its fleet of about 750 Boeing 737s out for maintenance but that number has more than doubled in recent days. Southwest since last week has canceled more flights than its rivals.

On Wednesday, Southwest had canceled more than 400 flights as snow, sleet and heavy rain crossed the U.S. A day earlier, the carrier had canceled 191 flights, compared with 32 by regional carrier Mesa Airlines and 24 by American Airlines, according to flight-tracking site FlightAware.

Southwest shares ended the day down more than 5 percent on Wednesday after the company trimmed its revenue outlook for the first quarter on a larger-than-expected impact from the partial government shutdown.

The airline declared an "operational emergency" at several maintenance bases last week, and added its Dallas hub to the list Tuesday, telling scheduled mechanics to show up at work or risk termination.

Southwest Airlines cuts forecast due to government shutdown
Southwest Airlines cuts forecast due to government shutdown

Southwest and its roughly 2,400 mechanics have been in contract negotiations for more than six years and the airline said the issues began after the last round of talks.

"On Feb. 12, just days after our last negotiations session with [the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association] 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," Southwest's COO, Mike Van de Ven, said in a statement Tuesday night.

Van de Ven apologized to customers for the cancellations and delays, and said the airline is ramping up use of third-party maintenance workers as much as possible "which allows our Southwest mechanics to work the increased workload of maintenance tasks they have identified."

Southwest's outsourcing of maintenance work has been a sore spot in contract negotiations with the union.

Van der Ven said that the union "has a history of work disruptions."

The union fired back that the airline is "scapegoating" its technicians and that the mechanics "will continue to do our job as expert craftsman, for the safety of Southwest's passengers."

"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," said Bret Oestreich, national director of the union, in a statement.

The mechanics rejected a contract offer in September for a 14.8 percent increase in pay right away, 3 percent annual increases and $91 million in ratification bonuses. The union had sought a 16.7 percent pay raise.

"No matter how small an issue we may find with an aircraft, we have an obligation mandated by operation of our [Federal Aviation Administration] issued licenses to repair it and make the aircraft airworthy," Oestreich said late Wednesday afternoon. "It is our hope that the Southwest management will join this commitment to restoring our safety culture and looking at this transition not as an 'operational emergency' but rather the beginning of a new normal."