Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

Some customers must have been wondering lately what's going on at their favored airlines.

Both American Airlines and Southwest have been canceling flights and inconveniencing passengers in a troubling way.

At the heart of both airlines' problems are negotiations with their mechanics, who aren't happy that more of their work may be outsourced. Contract negotiations have also been taking a very long time. Around 7 years, in Southwest's case.

At the happy, friendly Southwest the situation is even more embittered than at American.

After the airline declared a Trumpian state of emergency and sued the mechanics, CEO Gary Kelly made a painful admission this week: 

Customers are harmed. Our employees suffer through reduced profit-sharing.

Moreover, he claimed, the airline is losing "millions of dollars weekly."

How many millions, it's unclear. But when an airline is making a mess for passengers and losing money, many will wonder whether to book with it at all. 

Indeed, I've heard from several Southwest passengers who say they've stopped flying with the airline. At least for now.

As an occasional Southwest customer myself, I confess to a pause.

Southwest's pilots have sided with the mechanics, in very forceful terms

Southwest declared a State of Operational Emergency, a veiled attempt designed to intimidate our mechanics that has instead caused unnecessary fear and safety concerns in our passengers and the flying public.

Wait, so the airline is messing with its passengers' time, losing money, annoying its pilots and creating safety concerns?

How much more bad news can there be?

Well.

The mechanics union, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, took to Medium on Thursday -- yes, the same place Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos goes to allege he's being blackmailed by the National Enquirer -- to declare: 

We don't take planes out of service for trivial, cosmetic reasons.

These words will suggest to many passengers that there are real safety issues at the airline.

The mechanics continued with an example: 

So that history does not repeat itself, Aircraft Maintenance Technicians have a responsibility to properly follow the maintenance manual to ensure the fire suppression system is fully functional, including the proper taping of the cargo bins.

They say the airline "continues (to) try to prevent the reporting of damage as defined by its own Maintenance Procedural Manual."

To this, a Southwest spokeswoman told me: 

We continue to focus on our goal of reaching an agreement that benefits our hardworking Maintenance Employees. Southwest is -- hands down -- one of the best companies in the world to work for and we will not stray from our focus on rewarding our mechanics, while we work to shield our Employees and Customers from unnecessary disruptions within the operation.

It sounds like the airline is being conciliatory. Some might say suing the mechanics is less so.

What else can go wrong?

Well, as the Wall Street Journal reports, on Friday the Federal Aviation Administration sent a polite -- but, some might deduce -- threatening letter to both the airline and the mechanics' union.

The FAA is worried that the lawsuit rained down upon the mechanics by the airline might "constrain appropriate safety activities."

Some might translate this officialese as: 

We're concerned your nasty fight is going to get to the point where there'll be an accident.

Southwest's view of this letter is more sanguine: 

Labor Unrest is a scenario that is listed in the FAA guidance and this type of communication is normal protocol designed to underscore continued safe operations during such times at a carrier. Southwest's Safety Management System continuously monitors the safety performance of the airline to proactively identify and correct potential safety concerns at all times -- regardless of internal or external factors.

The dry might mutter that if you feel the need to "underscore continued safety operations," you're genuinely worried. 

The equally cynical might suggest that the mechanics realize there has to be considerable customer disruption and unhappiness, in order for the union to achieve a better deal.

The mechanics must be concerned, though, that a Texas court might not look upon them favorably. In Texas, they can embrace corporations just a touch.

However, as Kelly himself admitted, customers are being harmed.

When you're a customer-focused airline -- perhaps the pre-eminent one in America -- you don't want those customers to think you run a ragged operation, with poor labor relations and even safety concerns.

This is the people's airline, after all. Has it lost its ability to make its own people happy?

Or are the people asking for too much?

Published on: Mar 8, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.