If the delay of the FAA’s authorization for Southwest’s Hawaii service launch as well as the fallout from the shocking in-flight tragedy in which a passenger was killed last year were not enough, Southwest has now been hit with another major setback. On Friday, February 15, 2019, news emerged that Southwest has declared an “operational emergency” after a significant number of aircraft were taken out of service for maintenance, leading to cancellation of flights and aggravating tensions between the company and its employees.

According to Bloomberg, due to the grounding of “an unusually high number” of its planes, Southwest was forced to declare a maintenance “emergency”, demanding all scheduled mechanics and inspectors to show up for work.

The company’s staff have been warned they could be fired for refusing to report for duty. And those who call in sick will be required to provide a doctor’s note on their first day back to work, Southwest reportedly stated in a memo sent to the carrier’s maintenance bases in Phoenix, Las Vegas, Orlando, and Houston.

The carrier’s position, hence, appears to be “all hands on deck”. According to the memo, which was first reported by the Chicago Business Journal, the airline told its mechanics it would be calling them in for overtime; vacation and shift trade requests have also been put on hold, unless they had been approved prior to the emergency situation.

Contract negotiations between Southwest and its mechanics, represented by the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA), have been going on for several years and currently involve a mediator. The key issue is Southwest's idea to outsource some maintenance.

Bret Oestreich, national director of AMFA, has criticized Southwest for declaring the emergency, calling it a “provocation” and urging union members “not to be baited into acts of defiance that will be characterized as insubordination”, USA Today reported.

Southwest responds

A spokeswoman for Southwest told AeroTime on Monday, February 18, she would not characterize the situation as “grounded flights” but rather “cancellations due to maintenance items and weather”.

“On an average day, the airline plans for as many as 20 aircraft to be unexpectedly out of service for maintenance items. Each day this week, the percentage of out-of-service aircraft in our available fleet of approximately 750 aircraft, has more than doubled the daily average with no common theme among the reported items,” the spokeswoman explained.

“To take care of our Customers, we are requiring all hands on deck to address maintenance items so that we may promptly return aircraft to service. At the same time, our operational planners have been working in the background to minimize the impact to our Customers.”

According to the Dallas-based carrier, maintenance items and weather can result in daily cancellations for the airline operation. “The uptick in maintenance items we’ve experienced over the last few days have resulted in a slight increase in that number but we do not have a breakdown of cancellations per city attributed to weather versus maintenance”, the spokeswoman clarified.

Southwest cancelled 38 flights on Saturday and another 112 flights on Sunday, as flight-tracking website FlightAware indicates. The carrier itself states its “cancellation numbers” were under 50 on Saturday and just over 100 on Sunday.

On Saturday, the carrier experienced approximately 50 percent of cancellations due to maintenance items; on Sunday, that dropped to around 15 percent. The majority of flight cancellations on Sunday were due to weather events across the country, the airline states.

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Southwest has begun conducting test flights to Hawaii as it seeks regulatory approval to start its long-anticipated service to the popular travel destination. The airline carried out a one-time non-stop flight to Honolulu on February 5, 2019, using one of its Boeing 737s with plans to conduct a second flight the following day, and this time, passing the distance limit of its jetliners.