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Southwest Airlines cancels hundreds more flights due to mechanical and weather issues

Southwest Airlines preparing for departure from Minneapolis to Denver.
Southwest Airlines preparing for departure from Minneapolis to Denver. AP

For a sixth day, Southwest Airlines customers are being cautioned to check airline schedules before heading to the airport.

Airline officials report that 65 flights have been canceled due to fleet maintenance-related issues out of the 290 flights canceled systemwide Thursday.

About 80 of the nearly 4,000 scheduled flights were canceled because of a winter storm in Las Vegas, according to a statement from Southwest Airlines.

“We’re asking that customers check Southwest.com for the latest on their specific flights as our operational planners are actively working in the background to minimize impacts to their travel plans,” a statement from airline officials said.

Airline officials have blamed maintenance workers for the scheduling problems while the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, the union representing the almost 2,400 aircraft maintenance technicians who work on Southwest aircraft, says the problem is one of the airline’s own making.

According to Bret Oestreich, AMFA national director, the safety problems they have been trying to get Southwest management to address affect commercial aviation as a whole.

“We get the blame for one bad decision after another,” Oestreich said. “Southwest has the lowest mechanic-to-aircraft ratio in the industry and Southwest has reduced the turnaround times between flights.”

The big problem is that airline management refuses to hire more mechanics, Oestreich said.

“If you increase the number of aircraft, someone has to do the work. Why would you not hire more mechanics?” Oestreich asked. “Look at downtime between flights. Aging aircraft have more maintenance needs. This company has created its own problem.”

Southwest Airlines officials have been meeting and negotiating with the mechanics union for more than six years in an effort to reach mutually agreeable contract terms. Oestreich said a recent contract offer was voted down by rank-and-file union members by an overwhelming margin.

Southwest has been dealing with mechanical problems on its aircraft since Friday, when airline officials declared an operational emergency. Oestreich said that in his 20 years working in the aviation industry, he has never heard of an operational emergency.

“Mechanics are willing to fix these planes and there has been an increase in oversight at Southwest,” Oestreich said. “There are 19 individual whistleblower cases that are being investigated. Southwest Airlines does not want to recognize that there is a problem.”

The airline is also trying to recover from other setbacks. Southwest reported it lost $60 million in revenue because of the government shutdown, according to a CNN report.

And the Federal Aviation Administration, which has an oversight system in place to ensure safe operations of airlines, in February 2018 began investigating reports of errors in calculating weight and balance data. The errors sometimes caused reported takeoff weights to be 1,000 pounds lower than the actual aircraft weights, the CNN report said.

Contract negotiations with the mechanics union are ongoing, and Southwest said it looks forward to rewarding the mechanics for their work, according to an airline statement. Apparently the mechanics have not received that message.

“I am really anxious to try and find some solution, but management does not want to address them and admit there is a problem,” Oestreich said. “We are willing to meet but right now there is hardly any communication going on.”

A Southwest Airlines plane was forced to make an emergency return to Salt Lake City Airport after its engine caught fire on Monday, Feb. 26. The plane was heading to Los Angeles and had to return to Salt Lake City shortly after takeoff at 6.45 a.m

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Mitch Mitchell is an award-winning reporter covering courts and crime for the Star-Telegram. Additionally, Mitch’s past coverage on municipal government, healthcare and social services beats allow him to bring experience and context to the stories he writes.

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