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

I tend to think of Southwest Airlines as a company that embraces decency.

Its employees seem (relatively) happy. Its ads claim its employees are deliriously happy.

Which is why last week's events at Southwest are a touch strange.

In what some might see as a Trumpian step, the airline declared an "operational emergency."

As part of that declaration, a company memo obtained by the Chicago Business Journal says Southwest insists all mechanics who have been scheduled to work have to turn up or, if they don't provide a doctor's certification, be in danger of dismissal.

Worse, the memo even uses the phrase "alleging illness" to suggest some mechanics might not want to work, say, overtime as part of this emergency.

That doesn't sound quite like the vocabulary of a harmonious relationship between management and mechanics.

What, though, is officially causing this apparent panic?

A Southwest spokeswoman told me: 

Southwest's maintenance organization issued a call to maximize the number of Mechanics available for work. On an average day, the airline plans for as many as 20 aircraft to be unexpectedly out of service for maintenance items. Each day this week, the percentage of out-of-service aircraft in our available fleet of approximately 750 aircraft, has more than doubled the daily average. 

So an unusual number of Southwest's aircraft are calling in sick. Indeed, 100 flights were canceled on Friday, another 39 on Saturday.

Southwest told me there's "no common theme among the reported items."

The airline's planes, all Boeing 737s, are put under constant pressure. Southwest depends on fast turnarounds and multiple stops. 

The fact, though, that twice as many planes are having maintenance problems will concern many, including passengers.

Recently, a disturbing CBS News report suggested that mechanics at Southwest and American were being pressured by management to overlook certain issues in order to keep planes in service.

One mechanic told CBS: 

I've seen people walked off the job, held on suspension for a month or more because they've reported problems that they supposedly were outside their scope for finding.

That report aired just a couple of weeks ago. 

I asked Southwest whether there was any relationship between that report and its sudden state of emergency. The airline wouldn't be drawn.

Southwest is, though, currently in negotiation with its mechanics and has been since 2012. 

The mechanics' union, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, recently sent out an update to its members in which it said: 

The Company continues to insist on massive offsets of foreign outsourcing and elimination of your paid rest. The Company asks for these 'offsets' while not increasing the money in any significant fashion from the Tentative Agreement (TA) that you, the membership, rejected by a wide margin.

The union added a somber thought: 

Make no mistake -- the Company is not currently engaged in good faith negotiation.

The fact that Southwest is apparently threatening to fire some mechanics may be added to the file entitled: Things That Make You Go Hmmmm.

The airline, however, insists it's all about the customers: 

To take care of our Customers, we are requiring all hands on deck to address maintenance items so that we may promptly return aircraft to service.

Published on: Feb 17, 2019
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