DALLAS – Southwest Airlines Co.’s operational emergency stretched into a fifth day Tuesday, with double the normal number of planes taken out of service daily because of mechanical issues.
The carrier notified workers Feb. 15 of the situation, saying maintenance employees risked being fired if they declined to take overtime assignments or failed to show up for work as scheduled, unless they have a doctor’s note. The Dallas-based carrier has been in contract talks with the union representing mechanics for more than six years.
Southwest has canceled 519 flights since Feb. 15, according to FlightAware.com, although the total includes flights grounded by weather. A breakdown by cause wasn’t available. The carrier on Tuesday added its Dallas maintenance center to those in Houston, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Arizona, and Orlando, Florida, that originally were covered by the alert.
“Sometimes if you get a hiccup or three hiccups and aircraft need service that’s not part of the regular program, that can throw your schedule off pretty fast,” said Bill Waldock, a crash investigator and professor of safety science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “If you’re not flying airplanes with passengers in them, you’re not making money.”
The number of planes taken out of service has continued at more than twice the normal daily average of 20, Southwest said Tuesday, and there is “no common theme” among the reported mechanical issues. The Dallas-based airline has about 750 Boeing Co. 737 aircraft and makes nearly 4,000 flights each day.
The Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, which represents 2,700 Southwest employees, said its members were working as usual. The mechanics union rejected a tentative contract agreement in September.
“Members are working normal schedules, and working normal overtime,” Bret Oestreich, the union’s national director, said late last week.
In 2017, Southwest accused the union of encouraging members to refuse overtime assignments in order to pressure the company in contract talks. A lawsuit filed by the airline was suspended in 2018 after an initial contract agreement was reached.