MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Southwest Airlines canceled more flights today than usual, and not just because of the harsh winter weather sweeping across much of the country. The airline has double the number of planes out of service because of unspecified mechanical issues.
As NPR's David Schaper reports, Southwest management is pointing the finger at the airline's mechanics' union amid a long-running labor dispute.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Southwest Airlines canceled at least 440 flights today. That's more than 11 percent of its schedule nationwide. And one of the reasons is that the airline has about 40 planes out of service due to mechanical problems. That's double the normal number at any given time. Experts say it's unusual.
BILL WALDOCK: Most of the time, you can predict the types of work that you're going to be - have to be accomplished on an aircraft. That's why airlines use maintenance programs rather than spot maintenance or things like that.
SCHAPER: That's Bill Waldock, professor of aviation safety science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Waldock notes that planes that aren't flying passengers are not making money. So with so many planes grounded, Southwest's chief operations officer declared an operational emergency.
WALDOCK: Basically, it's all hands on deck. They want everybody available to try to get the airplanes maintenanced (ph) as fast as they can.
SCHAPER: That means canceling time off and mandatory overtime for mechanics.
And in a statement last night, Southwest's COO called out the mechanics' union, pledging to launch an investigation into why so many planes are being pulled out of service all at once. His statement added that the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, which represents Southwest's 2,400 mechanics, has a history of work disruptions.
BRETT SNYDER: The communication didn't feel very Southwest-like. You always think of Southwest as fun and, you know, not as serious.
SCHAPER: Brett Snyder writes about the airline industry on his Cranky Flier blog.
SNYDER: From their perspective, this is something they think is necessary to make sure that the fleet is fixed and flying, but it certainly would be taken by the union as a shot across the bow. It's going to ratchet up tension, I would think.
SCHAPER: The airline and the mechanics' union have been in contract negotiations for six years, with no new agreement in sight. As for tension, today, the union fired back at management, accusing it of scapegoating maintenance technicians. It characterizes the airline's linking of the operational emergency to contract talks as simply an attempt to divert attention away from the airline's safety issues.
So should Southwest passengers be concerned? Brett Snyder says no.
SNYDER: That's just labor negotiations (laughter). This is almost a standard pattern. You know, one side will claim safety issues, then the other side will push back. It's part of the tug of war.
SCHAPER: Experts say neither side would ever do anything unsafe, with one saying he'd have no problem getting on a Southwest flight tomorrow.
David Schaper, NPR News.
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