Monday, February 12, 2018

Southwest Airlines' dispute with its mechanics could stall flights to Hawaii

Four months after Southwest Airlines announced plans to start flights to Hawaii, a smoldering dispute between the Dallas-based carrier's management and its aircraft mechanics threatens to delay the highly anticipated launch to the islands.

The discord also could affect passenger safety if changes aren't made, the Federal Aviation Administration has warned.

Southwest is in negotiations for a new contract with the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, or AMFA. The negotiations have dragged on for more than five years.

Southwest plans to outsource maintenance work related to its Hawaiian operations — a plan the union opposes. The issue has become a main sticking point in the negotiations, Bret Oestreich, national director of AMFA, told the Dallas Business Journal in an email interview.

“Southwest Airlines needs to stop playing games and negotiate in good faith with their aircraft maintenance technicians,” Oestreich said. “Southwest continues to want to increase the outsourcing of the aircraft maintenance footprint. We do not want to negatively impact expansion to Hawaii, but AMFA needs black and white job protection language.”

Southwest did not respond to interview requests for this story.

In order for Southwest’s Boeing 737 aircraft to fly long distances over the ocean, including service to Hawaii, the planes must get special “extended operations,” or ETOPS, certification and maintenance.

It’s AMFA’s position that Southwest is violating the current collective bargaining agreement by outsourcing ETOPS-related and other maintenance work to third-party vendors. The dispute is in arbitration

Southwest said in a previous statement that the planned flights to Hawaii do not violate the current collective bargaining agreement.

“At Southwest, our goal is to ensure reliable operation of our ETOPS-equipped aircraft through multiple maintenance and safety avenues, as there is no higher priority than the safe operation of our aircraft," said Russell McCrady, Southwest Airlines vice president of labor relations.

AMFA members say it’s not just their jobs they’re worried about, but passenger safety.

Southwest has been penalized for maintenance missteps involving companies to which the airline outsourced work in the past.

In 2014, the low-cost carrier was fined $12 million by the Federal Aviation Administration over improper replacement of fuselage skins on 44 aircraft for work it outsourced to Everett, Washington-based Aviation Technical Services from 2006 to 2009. The FAA said the incorrect skin installations could have resulted in gaps that would allow moisture to penetrate and lead to corrosion, according to court documents from the case.

The $12 million fine was, at the time, the second-largest in the FAA’s history and was in addition to a $7.5 million penalty that Southwest paid in 2011 over missed monitoring for fuselage cracking.

In the $7.5 million case, the lax oversight initially appeared to play a role when a five-foot hole tore open in the roof of one of Southwest’s older 737s in 2011, causing depressurization and necessitating an emergency landing. However, the National Transportation Safety Board two years later blamed the incident on poor workmanship during the aircraft’s manufacture by Boeing.

In addition to the ETOPS issue, major sticking points in the contract negotiation between Southwest and AMFA include pay raises, headcount protections and retroactive pay for the more than five years the company and the union have been in contract talks, Oestreich said.

Oestreich said Southwest has 3.3 aircraft mechanics per plane, the lowest ratio in the industry. To compare, Chicago-based United Airlines has 11.2 mechanics per aircraft, and Fort Worth-based American Airlines has 7.5 mechanics per plane, he said.

Pilots, flight attendants and other Southwest employee groups are projected to grow in proportion to the airline's purchase of new planes, Oestreich said. But the company wants to reduce the headcount of mechanics to 2.75 per aircraft, which it plans to accomplish through outsourcing and attrition, Oestreich said.

Southwest’s McCrady called it “illogical" to compare mechanic-to-aircraft ratios among carriers, because the number of mechanics needed to support a fleet is unique to each carrier.

"The ratio is driven by aircraft type, aircraft size, aircraft age, flight schedules and airline partnerships," McCrady said. "Making comparisons risks an apples to oranges mischaracterization."

Meanwhile, Southwest mechanics over the past year have filed over a dozen whistleblower complaints alleging a variety of grievances, including pressure to gloss over maintenance issues.

The complaints are filed by individual mechanics, not the union, and investigated independently by the FAA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The government agencies then rule on whether the complaint is substantiated or not.

An Oct. 25, 2017 report following an investigation of several whistleblower complaints warned that a lack of collaboration between employees and management at Southwest Airlines is threatening the quality of aircraft maintenance.

“The environment at Southwest Airlines — specifically lack of communication, lack of training, perception that airworthiness findings will result in disciplinary actions for all involved to include mid-level managers — if not addressed will impact the value of quality having a direct effect on the status of aircraft airworthiness,” says the memo from James Gardner, deputy director of Air Carrier Safety Assurance for the FAA.

The union thinks that management wants mechanics to avoid documenting discrepancies, while management’s perspective is that the mechanics want to go beyond the scope of their tasks to find and document discrepancies that may or may not impact operations, Gardner’s memo says.

“This dichotomy has created an environment that if not corrected will have a detrimental impact on the airline and its fleet,” the memo says.

Gardner cites as an example a complaint involving a flight control rudder balance weight that had damage his report characterized as “substantial.” The aircraft maintenance technician was inspecting another part when he noticed visible corrosion on the rudder weight.

“After reporting what he found, the individual was questioned as to why and how he came to notice this when he was not conducting work on the rudder,” Gardner said, “rather than being praised for finding a serious airworthiness issue.”

Southwest management pointed out that the issue with the rudder was addressed, but “the impact to the employees and the overall maintenance organization arguably is impacted by the questioning,” Gardner noted.

“This event led to the discovery of a systemic issue with the fleet and now has involvement with the carrier’s engineering and the aircraft manufacturer,” Gardner’s memo adds.

In a separate and independent FAA field investigation of the carrier's Los Angeles maintenance operations conducted Sept. 20, 2017, the agency's investigators reported that all of the mechanics except two felt "pressured and under scrutiny" as to whether they were finding too many things wrong with the aircraft.

Mechanics in Los Angels were told “Dallas is watching us, don’t make us look bad with delays,” according to whistleblower documents.

The FAA investigators said a lack of trust and communication combined with fears of threats and reprisals resulted in "a degraded level of safety."

(Bill Hethcock - Dallas Business Journal) 

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