After a Year of Labor Unrest, American and Southwest Fall Behind in Another Round of Contract Negotiations
Union contract negotiations are increasingly ferocious at American Airlines and Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, carriers that already reported major disruptions in operations from labor disputes this year. American is nearing deadlines to get a deal with three major groups, including flight attendants, pilots and the maintenance workers it still hasn’t been able to reach a contract with after four years of talks.
Southwest is facing a contentious contract process with flight attendants. It’s also working on deals with four smaller employee groups.
Labor-management disputes at the airlines always raise the concern that safety may be affected. Usually, the concerns focus on the workplace tensions that arise when management and labor are involved in protracted disputes. Those workplace tensions can destroy the collaborative atmosphere important to aviation safety. They can also add stress to workers that can affect their ability to do their jobs properly.
Of course, protracted disputes can lead to even worse outcomes. One of the worst-case scenarios of such disputes recently played out in the news of an American Airlines mechanic who was arrested for allegedly sabotaging a Boeing 737-800 at Miami International Airport. According to an FBI affidavit, the mechanic tampered with the air data module system, a critical component of the aircraft’s navigation system, responsible for providing information—such as airspeed and altitude—for display in the cockpit. As the aircraft was taxiing for departure on July 17, the crew powered up the engines and noticed an error message for the system. An inspection of the aircraft found that a pitot tube had been blocked with foam.
I have been thinking about the labor disputes at American Airlines, and Southwest Airlines, for some time, especially in relation to the safety management systems both airlines are now required to have. This act of sabotage and its connection to one of the labor disputes prompted me to finally write this article. As many of you are probably aware, both American Airlines and Southwest Airlines are involved in protracted disputes with their mechanics’ unions. Without speculating about the merits of the disputes themselves, it’s fair to say that that situations at both carriers have become acrimonious enough that both airlines have sued their mechanics’ union, alleging—among other things—illegal work slowdowns that grounded flights and disrupted schedules. The unions at both airlines have countersued.
The FAA, in reaction to the rising tensions, sent a letter to the heads of each airline and its respective union (unions in the case of American). The letters are essentially identical and state that the FAA is aware of pending litigation between the airlines and their unions but is not a party to those lawsuits and remains neutral on the labor negotiations. The letters state: “The FAA cautions that a breakdown in the relationship between [American/Southwest] and the Union raises concerns about the ongoing effectiveness of the airline’s safety management system. Safety is a shared responsibility that demands a collaborative culture irrespective of any ongoing controversy between the organizations.”
The letter goes on to state: “In the midst of litigation, I write to emphasize the importance of ensuring cooperatively, in accordance with FAA standards, the highest level of safety in the airline’s operations.” The letter is signed by the FAA’s Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety, Ali Bahrami.
Here is the rub for me. Airlines and unions do not have the same obligation for ensuring safety, especially under a safety management system. In fact, the FAA’s regulations, Federal Aviation Regulation Part 5, 14 CFR Part 5, don’t mention unions at all. And that’s not because unions don’t play a critical role in the safety equation. I was an IAM union member for many years and active in the union’s safety work. I participated in many accident investigations as a union member and sat on many FAA/industry regulatory committees. I know first hand the important safety work that unions do.
But doing important safety work and having “shared responsibility” for safety at an airline are two very different things. In my opinion, addressing airline and union management as though they were equals—FAA did by addressing its letters jointly to the airline presidents and union officials—undercuts the airline’s ultimate responsibility and accountability for its operation of the airline. After all, it is the airline that holds the FAA’s operating certificate and it is the airline alone that is responsible for the functioning of its safety management system.
If there’s one thing that SMS has made clear, it’s that responsibility and accountability have to be clearly defined and reside at the highest levels of the airline. The airline has to identify an “accountable executive” with the authority over operations, financial resources, human resources, and for ultimate safety performance. The regulations further specifically provide that the airline “must define accountability for safety” and “must identify the levels of management with the authority to make decisions regarding safety risk acceptance.”
While one letter from the FAA may not seem that significant, in my opinion it indicates the FAA’s historic hands-off approach to what it considers labor problems even when allegations of safety issues are made. My concern with how the FAA handles union worker safety complaints in the midst of labor-management disputes goes back to the days of Eastern Airlines. FAA inspectors investigating airline mechanic complaints grew so frustrated with FAA management’s unwillingness to act that they took their complaints to the United States Attorney in Brooklyn, who ultimately filed a criminal case against Eastern Airlines for, among other things, falsification of maintenance records.
So while I have no idea whether the allegations made by mechanics in these recent cases are valid or not, the FAA should not hesitate to place responsibility for safety in the hands of the airlines—where it properly belongs.
The impact of management-union strife on SMS has been addressed here for a while:
First, any commentary on SMS should begin with an admission that this advance in aviation safety is not a panacea. Adopting its principle does not cure all. A corollary is that SMS is only effective if everyone at all times approaches their work with a fervor for safety culture. Everyone from a shop mechanic to the CEO must be constantly vigilant in spotting potential risk. In the context of SMS every working for an aviation company is RESPONSIBLE to have that constant AWARENESS and total PARTICIPATION.
Member Goglia is absolutely right Part 5 does not mention UNION. Neither the statute nor the regulations mention labor organization. The FAA has no jurisdiction over AFA, ALPA, IAM, SWAPA, TWU or any other of the organizations that represent these aviation safety professionals.
Responsibility has been the watch word for the regulatory regime followed by the FAA for decades. If a violation, accident or incident occurred the FAA investigators got the certificate number of the airline, pilot, AMT or others holding a license. That important identifier was a predicate to the all important ENFORCEMENT action. The Part 5 “accountable manager” term retains some of that history.
What has happened since the adoption of SMS is that the regulators have changed their approach. The first and perhaps the most important tenant of the Part 5 way is THAT ALL INVOLVED COMMIT TO SHARE INFORMATION WITH THE FAA AND OTHERS INVOLVED IN SMS.
It recognizes that humans make mistakes and punishing for inadvertent error is not conducive to safety. By collecting these situations fraught with risk SMS then develops solutions in response to these “errors”. When the FAA expects the certificate holder to admit that something that might result in a violation, the regulator concluded that it would not punish those who volunteer information through SMS, ASAP, ASRS, etc. Mr. Goglia’s use of the legal term “responsibility” reflect the old connotations.
Finally, SMS seeks to maximize involvement from all sectors of each certificate holder. Vigilance, Submission of potential risk and Participation in the process are critical for SMS to function effectively.
Though not mandated, SMS seeks inclusion and a vital member of the process is UNION. For example, the SMS processes information reported from all and then defines proposed risk priorities. The Event Review Committee (ERC) is designated as the forum to assess the data, set the priorities and jointly define solutions.
SMS regards a 3600 approach as vital to developing comprehensive responses to risks. For example, the management representatives go beyond Flight Ops, Mx and the obvious organizations with safety responsibilities. Because involvement is important and multi-faceted problem solving, the ERC includes HR/hiring, organizational design, aircraft planning, accounting, legal, the CEO, etc.
What Mr. Goglia missed from the FAA (Bahrami) letter is that it is standard, recommended practice to include UNIONS on the ERC. Their analysis of a specific problem is highly valued. Their encouragement of their Members to submit all problems which each individual pilot, mechanic, flight attendant, wing walker, baggage handler, passenger service agent, etc. may see.
Yes, the Part 13 consequences of RESPONSIBILITY have not been diluted by the letters to the carriers and unions. No, the FAA does regard the unions to be part of the safety solution. In a Compliance and Cooperation sense, the UNIONS are RESPONSIBLE for SMS safety vigilance and participation. Mr. Goglia, who has personally shown through his NTSB contributions, should be pleased that the FAA now regards his Fraternal Brothers to be part of the solution, to be significant participants in SMS.
There can be no doubt that the management-labor conflicts have strained the trust, that is necessary to make the FAA’s primary safety regimen work, is weakened. Both parties, in recognition of the value of SMS, must work to isolate this process from the strife. Tactics by either side that denigrate the SMS integrity would be responsible for the loss of this critical safety discipline.
With that understanding, Mr. Goglia’s concerns about responsibility should be diminished if not removed.
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