Federal aviation regulators took the unusual step of warning
and its mechanics that their high-profile labor dispute threatens to damage the airline’s safety practices.
Friday’s letter from Ali Bahrami, the Federal Aviation Administration’s top safety official, said worsening relations between the carrier and the union representing about 2,400 mechanics “raises concern about the ongoing effectiveness of the airline’s safety management system.”
Last month, Southwest declared an operational emergency, claiming mechanics were taking an unusual number of aircraft out of service, resulting in delayed or canceled flights.
The union, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, declined to comment on Friday’s letter. A Southwest spokeswoman said: “We appreciate the FAA’s oversight and maintain our dedicated focus on assuring the highest level of compliance and safety at all times.”
The FAA letter, which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, comes after the agency weeks ago stepped up oversight of the low-fare carrier’s operations, a typical government move during a bitter contract fight such as the one at Southwest.
But the message from Mr. Bahrami goes beyond enhanced monitoring or more-aggressive enforcement by FAA inspectors. It suggests that labor strife and litigation related to the contract negotiations at Southwest could damage its basic safety culture and potentially erode flight safety.
Noting that safety “demands a collaborative culture,”
Mr. Bahrami said he wanted “to emphasize the importance of ensuring cooperatively, in accordance with FAA standards, the highest level of safety in the airline’s operations.”
The agency’s concerns were sparked partly by back-and-forth public arguments and harsh allegations between the two sides, according to one person briefed on the details.
The four-paragraph FAA letter addressed to Mike Van de Ven, Southwest’s chief operating officer, and Bret Oestreich, national director of the mechanics’ union, doesn’t cite imminent hazards, detail safety lapses or lay out specific incidents. It also doesn’t mention any pending enforcement moves or other regulatory actions against the Dallas-based airline, which carries more domestic passengers than any other carrier.
But beneath the bureaucratic language, it highlights concerns at the highest levels of the FAA that normal safety practices and safeguards may not be working as expected. Regulators consider labor-management cooperation and voluntary data sharing regarding incidents—without fear of punishment or retribution on the part of employees—to be the bedrock of an airline’s safety operations.
Southwest’s management has said the mechanics have engaged in an improper worker slowdown, while union leaders have fired back with allegations of intimidation and undue pressure by airline supervisors to get planes back in the air.
Industry and government officials said they couldn’t recall a similar red flag raised by FAA leaders in recent years due to labor-management friction.
The contract dispute has been simmering for more than six years, but bubbled into the open weeks ago as Southwest complained publicly about a higher-than-normal number of its planes being out of service for maintenance.
Union officials have complained mechanics feel pressure from supervisors to overlook defects or cut corners in the interest of keeping planes flying and on schedule. Southwest management maintains it doesn’t tolerate bullying or undue pressure, encourages employees to raise concerns and considers safety paramount.
After the spike in out-of-service aircraft last month, Mark Shaw, Southwest’s top lawyer, told union officials in a Feb. 22 letter that unscheduled aircraft downtime due to maintenance had increased more than fivefold at certain airports and “revealed troubling patterns of explicit coordination” among dozens of mechanics. “Further, we have identified specific shifts responsible for the majority of the unlawful activity,” the letter said, asking union leaders to take action to stop it.
The union’s Mr. Oestreich has said the airline’s arguments were “simply an attempt to divert attention away from the airline’s safety issues.”
Management pointed fingers at the mechanics’ union, noting that the number of out-of-service aircraft didn’t make statistical sense. The outages were significantly higher than when hail storms damaged planes in Denver in 2018, or last year when a fatal accident prompted widespread engine inspections. Officials at the mechanics union have said Southwest management simply wasn’t happy with the number of planes needing repairs.
Last week, Southwest sued the mechanics’ union in federal court in Texas, alleging it orchestrated a job action as a negotiating tactic. In the suit, the company accused the union of pulling planes out of service for “cosmetic and other minor maintenance write-ups that do not have any effect on the safety of flight,” such as a missing row number.
Earlier on Friday, Mr. Oestreich denied Southwest mechanics had been taking airplanes out of service for trivial reasons. The union also responded to Southwest’s lawsuit Friday, denying management’s allegations in a filing and lodging its own claims, including labor-law violations and defamation.
The FAA in its letter pressed the two sides to ensure that “any judicial order” won’t “constrain appropriate safety activities.”
Southwest Chief Executive Gary Kelly said the dispute is costing the airline “millions of dollars weekly” in lost revenue. “Customers are harmed. Our employees suffer through reduced profit-sharing,” Mr. Kelly said at a recent conference in New York.
“This negotiation has dragged on far too long, much longer than our other large union groups, and all efforts at this point should absolutely be focused on good-faith negotiations that will allow us to reward our superb mechanics,” he said.
Negotiations are set to resume later this month.
In recent weeks, Southwest has had to deal with other safety concerns. As reported last month by the Journal, the FAA for more than a year has been investigating problems at the airline with accurately calculating the total weight of checked bags loaded into the bellies of its jets. The lapses haven’t caused any accidents and Southwest has said they pose minimal safety issues; but the problem was described as systemic and significant in various internal agency documents. FAA officials are mulling whether to propose a fine or seek other punishment.
To try to resolve the matter without any adverse FAA action, Southwest has agreed to phase in using electronic scanners this year to verify the number of checked bags loaded into each of its planes—a procedure long used by other major carriers.