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Southwest Blames Mechanics’ Union for Grounded Planes and Canceled Flights

Southwest Airlines (LUV) is having an “operational emergency.”

The airline has been forced to cancel hundreds of flights over the past five days because of mechanical problems that have grounded a substantial portion of its fleet.

In a statement released Tuesday, COO Mike Van de Ven said the company had “experienced an unprecedented number of out-of-service aircraft” and went on to suggest that the problems lie with employees that are members of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) — with whom the airline has been negotiating for six years.

Van de Ven added that the increase in mechanical problems occurred “just days after our last negotiations session with AMFA,” and that they took place in “four specific maintenance locations despite no change in our maintenance programs, no changes in leadership, and no changes in our policies and procedures.”

He continued that “AMFA has a history of work disruptions, and Southwest has two pending lawsuits against the union. We will be investigating this current disruption and exploring all possible remedies.”

AMFA responded to the accusations in a statement: “Southwest Airline’s scapegoating of its expert Aircraft Maintenance Technicians does not bode well for the airline’s safe operations. Safety is, and always will be, our number one priority. For Southwest’s leadership to connect the airline’s self-declared ‘operational emergency’ to collective bargaining negotiations is simply an attempt to divert attention away from the airline’s safety issues.”

Southwest declared an operational state of emergency at four maintenance locations on Friday, saying it needed as many technicians as possible to report to work, the Wall Street Journal reports. On Tuesday, the airline added its Dallas headquarters to the list of bases where it requires more maintenance workers to come to work. Those that don’t potentially face termination.

According to CNBC, Southwest expects about 20 of its 750 Boeing 737s to be unavailable because of maintenance issues on any given day. Lately, that number has doubled.

Statistics from FlightAware reveal that Southwest has canceled nearly 400 flights (10% of its total) scheduled for Wednesday after canceling nearly 200 flights on Tuesday (4%). Meanwhile, a winter storm is expected to sweep across the U.S. from the Plains to the Northeast on Wednesday, prompting airlines to preemptively cancel hundreds of flights.

Southwest’s troubles with the mechanics’ union also come as the airline faces a separate FAA investigation into how it estimates baggage weight.