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Southwest grounds planes, blames labor dispute with maintenance tech union

By Sasha Ingber, for NPR

Feb 20, 2019

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After pulling planes and canceling hundreds of flights, Southwest Airlines is offering an apology to travelers — and blaming the union that represents aircraft maintenance technicians.

Last week, the Dallas-based airline took more than 40 of some 750 aircraft out of service at four Southwest locations, spurring flight delays and cancellations. As a result, the company declared an operational emergency.

The unprecedented number of grounded aircraft followed a CBS investigation that highlighted the complaints of industry mechanics who said they were being pressured to overlook potential safety concerns for the sake of putting planes back into service quickly.

A company memo to mechanics, obtained by CBS, showed a call for all hands on deck and said maintenance employees could face "termination" for unexcused absences. It also gave the airline the ability to assign staff longer work hours and switch assignments.

Chief Operating Officer Mike Van de Ven linked the chaos to the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, with which the carrier has been locked in negotiations over pay and benefits for years. He said the union "has a history of work disruptions," resulting in two pending lawsuits brought by Southwest.

The union's national director, Bret Oestreich, hit back. "Southwest Airline's scapegoating of its expert Aircraft Maintenance Technicians does not bode well for the airline's safe operations," he said.

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