Southwest Mechanics are Hamstringing the Airline, and it’s the Culture that May Suffer

In the airline industry labor relations are generally governed by the Railway Labor Act. Strikes aren’t permitted until the Act’s negotiation and mediation processes have been exhausted, and limits the kinds of disputes that can turn into a strike.

Strikes which occur outside the procedures outlined in the act are illegal. In the late 1990s an organized sick out by American Airlines pilots — where pilots were careless enough to admit what was going on — led to the airline obtaining a judgment against the union for more than the union was worth.

In 2012 though pilots were more circumspect in their slowdown, saying of course we would never do anything like that but gosh golly pilots should certainly refuse to fly an aircraft that isn’t in the correct condition, like when a coffee pot isn’t working right.

More recently unhappy American Airlines mechanics have been writing up the smallest non-critical items and delaying flights, dragging down the carrier’s operations.

However it’s nothing like what’s been going on at Southwest, where the carrier declared an emergency requiring mechanics to show up when they’d otherwise be off. The airline has been consistently down aircraft over the past couple of weeks and they haven’t been able to fly a portion of their schedule.

What’s going on is now being revealed, and things are getting nasty between the airline and the union representing mechanics. The carrier has been down 60 planes a day because a group of mechanics are writing up everything they can find to write up.

The union says of course it’s not an illegal job action but their members should be doing their jobs — finding problems wherever they are.

The airline though has data.

Unscheduled aircraft downtime has quintupled in Orlando and more than sextupled in Houston.

Southwest said that since Feb. 12, the average UAD in Orlando has surged to 60 hours a day compared to an average of 10.2 hours per day over the last two years. In Houston, the UAD had averaged 18.6 hours a day but jumped to 111 hours Feb. 12, then rose again to 127 the following day.

Here’s the real problem: the airline is almost certainly right that there’s a coordinated illegal job action on the part of mechanics, and it’s causing damage to the airline. However the carrier has maintained a strong culture of working with its employees. It didn’t engage in layoffs during economic downturns. It has managed to retain a culture where employees generally like their jobs.

Southwest Airlines isn’t the same place it was under Herb Kelleher but these sorts of confrontations chip away at what’s left of the culture little by little.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. Time for management to loosen the purse strings a bit. Pilots may fly these aircraft, but mechanics keep them flying. The two professions are jointly responsible for safety of flight, but there is a wide gap in their compensation.

  2. Like @BT, I’d be interested in more info about the roots of this conflict. I know I can always google it, but any explanation here would be welcome.

  3. Time to fire about 25 of the 100 mechanics who are illegally trying to hurt the airline. And then if the other 75 don’t get the message fire them. Unions should all be banned.

  4. The reality: It’s probable, that many airplanes have small issues, that legally would have to keep them from flying. Not things like coffee pots, but small issues, which are probably fine – But in terms of safety theater (Not unlike the security theater of the TSA) do need to be handled. In the best of times, Mechanics may look the other way, and pretend they don’t exist. However, in a contract dispute – They will follow the rules in an absolute manner. I don’t fault them on this.

    Both sides will use what leverage they have in a dispute. Unfortunately for an airline, there is very little they can do. This stuff is highly regulated, and mechanics simply by following those regulations completely by the book – Can slow down operations considerably.

    Southwest would be smart to give them a fair contract. These aren’t unskilled workers with few options. I can train nearly anyone to throw a piece of luggage on a conveyor belt. I’d have a much tougher time teaching someone how an engine worked, or (insert mechanical issue here). It’s just a stupid fight, that they don’t need to be having.

  5. My only question… how many customers were left behind due to lack of seating? If volume is low enough to accommodate all customers on other planes, SWA may be happy to cancel these flights and blame the mechanics. SWA keeps pretty good stats, give us the load factors at these two airports.

  6. Gary, I have had two flights cancelled on SWA in the last two weeks. SWA says Air Traffic, but I cannot find a record of this and weather appeared fine for all other flights. Are there other options to finding this information, besides pressing gate agents and customer service reps?

  7. Southwest has already said they have outsourced some of the mechanic work to third parties. If the union isn’t careful Southwest may decide to outsource all the mechanic work to third parties.

  8. I was in Las Vegas last night for a 1 hour connect to Sacramento the plane they were pulling to the gate did not come, the next promised plane was reprioritized elseware as ours was not a full flight. When we finally got a plane it was at the other side of the airport and all 90 of us walked there to find no crew. We think our crews airtime expired. When we finally got a crew they had been informed only 15 min before of the flight, but did a great job of getting us to Sacramento. I don’t know why the mechanics think that slowing things down and hurting there companies business is going to allow the company to have more money to pay them more.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *