Diagnosis of FAA SMS process should identify what is needed to help SWA-AMFA problems

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F.A.A. Cautions Southwest Airlines and Mechanics Union in Contract Dispute

Mechanics Union Countersues Southwest Airlines Amid Labor Dispute And FAA Safety Concerns

F.A.A. Cautions Southwest Airlines and Mechanics Union in Contract Dispute

 Very differing view of the Facts

News Reports suggest Sources for Information

FAA’s SMS records should have answers

Learning from them should right the AMFA-Southwest Mess 

As usual with litigants in a contentious cases, the parties, airline and union, make vitriolic allegations which are “full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”[1] Between the lines of the accumulated news reports, it appears that there might be a definitive, reliable source for establishing the facts.

New York Times reports:

Southwest Airlines sued its mechanics’ union late Thursday for what the airline claimed was an illegal work slowdown that grounded planes and has resulted in as many as 100 flight cancellations a day since mid-February.

The carrier said its mechanics had taken an unusually high number of planes out of service in recent weeks, a move seen as a negotiating tactic in a contract dispute. Negotiations most recently broke down over how much maintenance the airline would be allowed to outsource.

Last month, mechanics pulled as many as 62 planes from service in one day, resulting in schedule disruptions across Southwest’s network, according to the lawsuit. By comparison, the airline said, it expects to have about 14 planes out of service on an average day, and can operate a normal schedule with as many as 35 grounded aircraft, out of a fleet of 752.

Politico reports

In the suit, Southwest alleges that AMFA mechanics have been writing frivolous reports on cosmetic and minor maintenance issues that have caused Southwest to cancel or delay flights while the planes were taken out of service to deal with the infractions. The airline further suggests that these incidents had spiked so much that it could only be a coordinated campaign.




Fortune says

Van de Ven added that the increase in mechanical problems occurred “just days after our last negotiations session with AMFA,” and that they took place in “four specific maintenance locations despite no change in our maintenance programs, no changes in leadership, and no changes in our policies and procedures.”








Forbes reports:

Until February, the negotiations were still ongoing, but at that point, a higher volume of Southwest aircraft curiously started to get pulled out of service by the mechanics, disrupting mainline operations. On one Sunday alone at the carrier, over 100 flights were canceled because of service disruptions, resulting in a public apology from Mike Van de Ven, COO. In that note, Van de Ven placed the blame squarely on the mechanics union; the AMFA, was quick to fire back in its own statement, saying “”Southwest Airlines scapegoating of its expert aircraft maintenance technicians does not bode well for the airline’s safe operations.”Bloomberg adds

The Federal Aviation Administration on Friday sent the letter to Southwest and the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, urging the two parties to work cooperatively on safety issues. Southwest flies the most passengers on domestic flights of any U.S. carrier.

“The FAA cautions that a breakdown in the relationship between Southwest and AMFA raises concern about the ongoing effectiveness of the airline’s safety management system,” wrote Ali Bahrami, the agency’s associate administrator for aviation safety.

In the letter, the FAA said it wasn’t a party to the legal battle and wasn’t taking sides. The agency urged the company and its mechanics to “ensure that any judicial order that might result from the litigation does not constrain appropriate safety activities.”

Safety is a shared responsibility of Southwest and A.M.F.A. members that demands a collaborative culture,” he wrote, “irrespective of any ongoing controversy between the two organizations.”

The alleged job action began Feb. 12, shortly after the most recent contract talks, the company said in the suit. The following day, the number of aircraft pulled from flights for maintenance issues rose to 35 from 30, and eventually hit a high of 62 on Feb. 19, the suit said.

‘Operational Emergency’

The number of aircraft grounded by maintenance reports was 34 on Thursday, Southwest said, although the “operational emergency” remained in place in three of five cities.

In one example cited in the lawsuit, planes in Houston racked up a combined total of 127 hours out of service in one day because of maintenance issues, up from the average of 18.6 hours. Southwest has previously said mechanics have kept planes out of service because of items such as broken tray tables, and the lawsuit cited a missing seat row number “on an airline that does not assign seats.”

  • Is there a place where these conflicting facts can be resolved?
  • Where should all of the AMFA reports of unsafe conditions be found?
  • Is there a repository in which the actions of the Southwest Safety Risk analyses of the problems identified by the union were assessed by the SMS team?
  •  If the union did submit within SMS, via ASAP or under ASRS , what did the SRM process conclude OR, as AMFA seems to imply, WERE THEIR REPORTS IGNORED?
  • If the union did not report their safety concerns through the proper procedures is that evidence of a CONSPIRACY?

The records of a properly functioning SMS would capture THE ANSWERS TO THESE QUESTIONS. And, oh by the way, the FAA’s own SAS methodology

  • should have been aware of the union’s failure to submit the reports through the various options


  • should have known whether the SRM data collection, analyses, solution discussions and action plans were effective?

A simple review of these records will answer the parties allegations.

More importantly than settling the conflicting lawsuits, such an external audit of the processes would identify what the parties need to do to make their joint SMS system work. Even an idiot (see footnote I and the full quote) knows that the Southwest AMFA Safety Culture is failing, but reinstating a trusted process is essential to restoring the relationships needed for safety.  The repeated submission of important safety, the assessment of the analyses, the determination of priorities and the implementation of the agreed to solutions will help rebuild confidence.





[1] Macbeth (Act V, Scene V).

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2 Comments on "Diagnosis of FAA SMS process should identify what is needed to help SWA-AMFA problems"

  1. Sandy, very well and comprehensively stated. With our projects, the most challenges faced are getting the organization to actually use the SMS that has been created and implemented to address their business, technical and safety issues.

    • Philip Daspit | March 24, 2019 at 5:46 am | Reply

      Unfortunately, most companies saw SMS as a program. SMS how safety is managed in a company. The concepts are not all that difficult. Getting companies to use it has always been the problem.

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