Shocking statement by Southwest Airlines Pilots Association: A to B safely or not at all

Today, Captain Jon Weaks, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, issued a communication to the nearly 10,000 pilots represented by the association. In his communication, he provided additional context and perspective on the self-described “State of Operational Emergency” declared by the airline. In his communication, Captain Weaks reaffirmed the safety of the airline, the confidence the pilot union has in AMFA mechanics to keep our aircraft in airworthy condition, and the joint commitment by SWAPA Pilots and AMFA mechanics to always protect the passengers. SWAPA Pilots are responsible for flying safely from point A to point B or not at all.

The last few weeks have highlighted how poorly upper management at Southwest Airlines is performing, how it truly views labor, how ineffective its communication and execution of our daily operation are, and how everyone at OUR airline should be concerned.

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Last week, Southwest declared a State of Operational Emergency (SOE), a veiled attempt designed to intimidate our mechanics that has instead caused unnecessary fear and safety concerns in our passengers and the flying public. When the nation saw Southwest blaming an employee group wedded to the safety of our aircraft for our maintenance issues, the questions and concerns intensified. What followed this declaration is perhaps the most egregious display by the management of tribalizing and scapegoating our employees in the history of our Company.

On Thursday, February 19, Mr. Van de Ven, Chief Operating Officer (COO), sent a company-wide update on our out-of-service aircraft. In it, he stated, “On February 12, just days after our last negotiation session with AMFA, we experienced an unprecedented number of out-of-service aircraft in four specific maintenance locations.” By doing so, he was not subtle in his implication that the number of aircraft out of service was directly correlated with negotiations, and thus, AMFA was hurting our Company over negotiations. Our COO completed throwing our mechanics under the bus with, “Unfortunately, AMFA has a history of work disruptions, and Southwest has two pending lawsuits against the union,” while citing no evidence of a “work disruption” other than the number of aircraft out of service. As the saying goes, correlation is not causation.

What did Mr. Van de Ven conveniently leave out? He failed to mention that each of the four locations he cited performs more time-intensive and complicated “heavy” and intermediate maintenance than most other locations. Indeed, this also holds true for Dallas, where a separate SOE was declared last week as well. He also failed to mention that many of the MEL deferrals and maintenance checks that have been deferred can come due in a compressed period of time. In addition, he failed to account for the weather-related maintenance actions that resulted from several recent winter storms and an increase indents and holes in cargo bins (per AMFA).

AMFA gave us some other examples that were blatantly omitted in Mr. Van de Ven’s letter. Just the week prior to the SOE, there was a part effectivity issue with 22 aircraft concerning O-rings for the engine fuel filters that caused these aircraft to be out of service. And since the MAX is a newer aircraft, it is sometimes difficult to get the needed tooling or extra parts necessary to keep an aircraft in service.

AMFA has been vocal about not having enough parts being on hand, and at times had no choice but to legally use or “rob” parts from other aircraft in order to meet operational demands. What should be obvious to upper management is that by failing to stock enough parts, relying on borrowing parts from other aircraft, and banking on just-in-time inventory the Company is in no way helping, but only furthering, delays.

Mr. Van de Ven’s update was followed by a letter in the evening of February 22 from Southwest Chief Legal Counsel, Mr. Mark Shaw, to AMFA leadership alleging “unlawful concerted action” by our mechanics. Mr. Shaw cites no evidence of this supposed unlawful action. His only “fact” was that his “data analysis confirms that naturally-occurring maintenance or other events could not statistically produce these extremely high Unscheduled Aircraft Downtime (UAD) hours over the course of the past week.” What is glaringly missing from Mr. Shaw’s accusation is the fact that the Company has not stated that there has been an invalid, false, or fabricated safety write-ups. Never. No doubt the IT resources dedicated to collect and compile Mr. Shaw’s data analysis are immune from the IT shortcomings rampant throughout the rest of our operation, including the IT problems that shut down Southwest Flight Operations for approximately four hours the morning of February 22.

Mr. Shaw speaks from both sides of his mouth. He claims that “safety is paramount at Southwest and we fully respect each mechanic’s right and obligation to identify legitimate safety issues.” But does he? On the one hand, management wants our mechanics to make the right call, but on the other hand, they are upset that our mechanics are trying to do the right thing while under the microscope by the FAA. The cognitive dissonance is deafening!

The Company avoids the glaring fact that Southwest is still under increased FAA and DOT scrutiny with several ongoing investigations including Performance Weight and Balance (PWB), training issues, Flight #1380, Flight #3472, the FAA’s Certificate Management Office (CMO) for Southwest being investigated by the DOT’s Inspector General, etc. In an investigation report from the FAA in 2017, which is now public, the FAA said, “There seems to be a lack of an environment of trust, effective communication, and the willingness for employees to share mistakes, concerns, or failures without the fear of threats or reprisal. This ultimately leads to a degraded level of safety that the Safety Management System (SMS) is trying to maintain at the highest possible level.” You can find links to information on some of this material herehere, and here. Yet, with all these factors at play in our maintenance operation, SWA senior leadership saw fit to simply blame our issues on recalcitrant mechanics going rogue.

We have seen first-hand poor leadership abound in the conflicting communications between the COO and CEO. While Mr. Van de Ven was busy throwing our mechanics under the bus for the Company’s failings, on February 22, Mr. Kelly was busy praising them. In an update to employees, he wrote, “Our Mechanics are extraordinary. I am proud of them, and they have been especially heroic in getting aircraft returned to service over the last two weeks. They deserve all of our thanks.” Which one is it? Our mechanics cannot be simultaneously engaged in an illegal job action while also heroically getting aircraft returned to service over the last two weeks. One statement is obviously contrived and self-serving. Which one? Toxic leadership is a term that has entered the civilian business lexicon from the military, and an example of that is what leadership is perpetrating on our aircraft mechanics. The term “toxic” is not new with our management. Remember that term and Flight #1380, because I’ll have that story another time.

Looking at the cognitive dissonance and the conflicting communication from the CEO and COO, which message is the only one that can be contrived and self-serving? The answer lies in the timing. Southwest management came to AMFA recently with the Company’s offer after their failed TA. In a stunning and telling move, management asked for carte blanche outsourcing of maintenance to foreign repair stations. There were no limits on amounts, locations, or any specifics. Just statement of a desire to outsource to some extent at some location at some time in the future. SWA management claims that it wants vendors to compete to work on our aircraft. However, as the largest domestic carrier in the nation, the airline already has the ability to influence significant competition. How was this en masse outsourcing communicated? Our CEO penned a memo to employees referencing “minor rule changes” sought by management in AMFA’s contract. Make no mistake, the “minor rule changes” management wants are unlimited outsourcing and you can guess what that means for the number of mechanics in a Southwest uniform. Worst of all, this issue was resurrected after agreement on this topic had already been achieved in earlier negotiations.

Developments like this may not resonate with Pilots until we contextualize the situation. Today, Southwest Airlines outsources 80 percent of all aircraft maintenance.

You read that correctly – 80 cents of every dollar we spend on maintaining and repairing our aircraft is outsourced. So how does our outsourcing compare to that of our competition?

Compared to Southwest Airlines’ 80 percent outsourcing rate, United outsources 51 percent of its aircraft maintenance, Alaska outsources 49 percent, Delta outsources 43 percent, and American outsources only 33 percent.

Spirit and Allegiant outsource approximately 20 percent, but their numbers may be skewed due to the fact that they lease most of their aircraft. And, all this is accomplished on top of already having the lowest mechanic to aircraft ratio in the industry. Southwest Airlines maintains a 3.3 AMT to aircraft ratio. UAL, AA, and DL maintain a 12.0, 11.2, and 7.2 AMT to aircraft ratio, respectively. The next closest to SWA is Alaska who still maintains a 4.3 ratio (due to Alaska’s Line Mx Only- Mx program).

Now, let’s discuss skilled versus unskilled labor. Section 56 of SWA’s Airframe Essential Maintenance Providers (AEMP) policy states that,

“Management personnel indirect supervision of a maintenance or inspection function hold an appropriate Airman Certificate and, when assigning tasks, oversee the work accomplished by qualified AMTs and/or Quality Control Inspectors under their direct supervision.” It further states, “Non-certificated persons: Must have related experience in the maintenance tasks and perform all work under the direct supervision of the holder of an appropriate Airman Certificate (referred to as supervisor hereafter). The supervisor must be experienced in the tasks being performed and must be assigned for the sole purpose of direct oversight, providing guidance, support, and expertise in the maintenance tasks being performed.”

All this sounds well and good until we dig deeper into the numbers. According to the FAA, AAR Aircraft Services in Indianapolis staffs 323 certified mechanics versus 237 non-certified ones. Aviation Technical Services in Kansas City has 156 certified versus 60 non-certified. ATS’s Everett, Washington facility has 565 certified mechanics versus 361 non-certified. The bottom line is that, at U.S. aircraft maintenance facilities, certified mechanics make up half or more of the mechanic population. Compare these numbers to Aeroman in El Salvador that staffs 163 certified mechanics and 2,231 non-certified ones. Hong Kong Aero Engine Services has 48 certified mechanics and 714 non-certified. Only a small fraction of mechanics at foreign repair facilities are certified, and according to our AEMP, this small population of certified mechanics is responsible for overseeing all the work done by the huge population of non-certified mechanics. All this with no whistleblower protections, and an SMS, if one exists, that probably does not match any United States counterpart.

If management is touting outsourcing maintenance as a critical element of future success, they should release data showing the maintenance reliability rates for each vendor compared to the reliability rates of our mechanics. These reliability rates should include how much work was initially done incorrectly, and how much work had to be redone once the aircraft was put back into service. This data should be published for past work and for work in the future.

We’ve seen through the history of our Company where a myopic focus on cost control without looking at the big picture eventually comes back to bite us. The obvious example is outsourcing a very large amount of IT infrastructure. Our corporate leaders are now repeating those same mistakes with our aircraft maintenance. The savings from more outsourcing – domestic or foreign – will further demoralize all of us and will make it harder for our own mechanics to keep us safe.

It appears that our management is rehearsing the new Southwest Airlines labor relations playbook on the mechanics that will be used with other groups in the future. The situation with AMFA is designed to be a shot across the bow to all employees at Southwest Airlines. It is becoming abundantly clear that until Messrs. Kelly, Van de Ven, McCrady, and Kuwitzky depart the pattern, this new formula for labor relations at Southwest Airlines will continue to gain steam and eradicate all vestiges of the foundational principles that made this airline the success it has become. In other words, we’ll be just another legacy carrier. We desperately need new leadership with Kelleher-esque empathy, vision, humility, and leadership. We need leadership that views employees as a synergistic and important element of a successful team rather than mere cost units.

Let me be clear, our aircraft are safe, and a large part of that is because the men and women of AMFA continue to do their jobs in the face of increasing pressure, intimidation, and scrutiny from Southwest management. They have our eternal gratitude for a job well done. SWAPA Pilots serve as the final line of defense and will never fly an aircraft unless it is safe to do so. Our families and friends fly on our aircraft, in addition to our valued passengers. We will protect them and the public at large and continue to always look for ways to improve safety. Their lives, our Company’s future, and our livelihoods depend on it.

A to B safely or not at all.