In declaring an operational emergency, Southwest Airlines Chief Operating Officer Mike Van de Ven blamed labor issues for “an unprecedented number of out-of-service aircraft.” Meanwhile Union officials accused the company of manufacturing the emergency in order to circumvent safety regulations and retaliate against employees who insist on following proper protocols.
After a holiday weekend which was marred by hundreds of flight cancellations and substantial operational delays, Southwest Airlines officials took the rare step of declaring an “operational emergency.” The airline says the seldom used emergency powers will allow the carrier to take steps to help quickly return a large number of out-of-service aircraft back to operational condition.
Southwest Airlines Chief Operating Officer Mike Van de Ven blamed the carrier’s recent operational woes on “an unprecedented number of out-of-service aircraft.” In a statement announcing the emergency declaration, he indicated that labor issues were ultimately responsible for the large number of planes that were unavailable for scheduled service.
“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,” Van de Ven complained in a February 19 press release. “We are committed to operating a safe fleet, and every report is investigated, which is why we issued a notice to require an “all hands” response to get out-of-service aircraft back into the fleet serving our customers.”
Over the busy holiday travel weekend, the airline reported that more than 40 aircraft each day were listed as out-of-service. That number is said to be about twice the amount of planes which are typically pulled from service for routine maintenance issues.
According to the airline, the emergency declaration will allow the carrier to shift some maintenance work to independent contractors and away from maintenance facilities where alleged work slowdowns are occuring. Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) officials say, however, that the move is a transparent attempt to make it easier to retaliate against whistle blowers who revelaed troubling safety issues at the Dallas-based airline. A recent CBS News exposé found that maintenance workers have complained of being pressured to cut corners to return aircraft to service sooner.
“Unfortunately, Southwest’s response has been to increase the level of coercion and further degrade safety,” AMFA officials said in a memo to rank-and-file members. “Southwest operates with the lowest ratio of technicians-to-aircraft of any major carrier. As a direct result of the Southwest-created emergency: (1) sick mechanics who have not had the opportunity to see a doctor will have to work through their illness, (2) vacations, holidays, and shift trades will be disrupted, (3) bid seniority will be dishonored, and (4) 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.”
In media reports, FAA officials have said the agency is closely monitoring the situation at the airline. Meanwhile, at least two lawmakers have called for an investigation into safety concerns raised by CBS News earlier this month.
“AMFA has a history of work disruptions, and Southwest has two pending lawsuits against the union,” Van de Ven offered as a parting shot of sorts. “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. We apologize to our Customers who have been inconvenienced by this disruption.”
[Image Source: Southwest]