Southwest Airlines announced it will launch an investigation into the cause of an “operational emergency” declared by the carrier last Friday, February 15, 2019, after a significant number of aircraft were taken out of service due to mechanical issues. At the heart of the matter lies Southwest’s tense negotiations with a union, which, the carrier claims, “has a history of work disruptions”.

According to a statement issued by one of Southwest’s top executives - Chief Operating Officer Mike Van de Ven - troubles began on February 12, 2019, just days after the carrier last held mediated contract talks with the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA), a union that represents nearly 2,400 of the company’s mechanics, who maintain the airline's overwhelming all-Boeing-737 fleet.

Southwest indicates it is after these negotiations that it saw “an unprecedented number” of out-of-service aircraft were driven primarily from its four maintenance bases in Phoenix, Las Vegas, Orlando, and Houston “by a subset of our entire mechanic workforce”. This occurred “despite no change in our maintenance programs, no changes in leadership, and no changes in our policies and procedures”, Southwest COO’s statement on February 19 reads.

If at first, the cause of the groundings and the following flight disruptions were said to be largely the result of unscheduled maintenance issues and weather, namely winter storms, the carrier now seems to be strongly pointing at its mechanics’ workforce. “AMFA has a history of work disruptions, and Southwest has two pending lawsuits against the union,” Van de Ven stated. The carrier has been involved in contract negotiations with the association for over six years.

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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.
 

Remedies needed urgently

Southwest admits, that the significant number of grounded aircraft has led to “cancellations, in some cases extremely long delays and other operational impacts over the last week,” and has apologized to customers affected by the disruptions. Van de Ven promises the company “will be investigating this current disruption and exploring all possible remedies”.

Southwest’s initial response to the groundings was to declare a maintenance “emergency” and issue an “all hands on deck” policy. In a company memo sent to the four maintenance bases on February 15, the company demanded all scheduled mechanics and inspectors to show up for work or risk being fired.

Despite the warnings and demands, which included a requirement to provide a doctor’s note if workers failed to show up for work as well as calling-in staff for overtime, and putting vacation, shift trades on hold, the number of grounded aircraft since the “operational emergency” was declared has doubled, resulting in continued flight delays and cancellations.

“The airline continues to experience a high number of out-of-service aircraft and is operating under a staffing protocol enacted late last week to maximize availability of Mechanics to address maintenance items and safely return aircraft to service,” spokesman for Southwest told AeroTime on February 21.

The company has turned to its team of approved third-party vendors to help with the ongoing maintenance emergency, assigning as much scheduled maintenance program work to those providers as possible, to alleviate the workload of Southwest’s mechanics.

Southwest cancelled only 38 flights on Saturday and 112 flights on Sunday, as flight-tracking website FlightAware.com indicates. Most recent data shows that on Tuesday, February 19, Southwest’s cancellations had risen to 191,  another 815 flights were delayed; on February 20, those numbers increased dramatically to 453 cancelled and 996 delayed flights.

Southwest said planners are working through winter and other weather challenges today,  With more than 4000 flights scheduled across the system today, February 21, Southwest said it had canceled nearly 290 flights, about 80 of those in Las Vegas, as of 11:00 am CST. According to FlightAware.com information, just two hours later, as of 13:00 pm CST, there were 388 flights cancelled and another 470 delayed.