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More Southwest planes out of commission as airline battles with mechanics



New documents obtained by CBS News show the situation at Southwest Airlines is worse than previously known. At different times over the past week, more than 60 Southwest 737s were taken out of service by mechanics for unscheduled maintenance. The airline says the "unscheduled aircraft downtime," or UADs, has been spiked at several maintenance hubs in particular.

Southwest said that since Feb. 12, the average UAD in Orlando has risen to 60 hours and day compared to an average of 10.2 hours per day over the last two years. In Houston, the UAD had averaged 1

8.6 hours a day but jumped to 111 hours on Feb.

"Yet there have been no mechanical issues on Southwest justifying this level of OTS aircraft," Southwest executive vice president and chief legal and regulatory officer, Mark Shaw, wrote in a letter

"We have identified a group of approximately 100 Mechanics who are responsible for virtually the whole increase in UAD hours. .. This concentration of activity in a discernible pattern makes clear that the source of the increase … is an illegal activity concerted, "Shaw wrote

Bret Oestreich, the national director of the American Mechanics Fraternal Association, said the union – which represents about 2,600 Southwest mechanics – "firmly rejects these allegations."

"AMFA has not called for, does not support, and will oppose any job action, in any form," he wrote in a letter to the mechanics on Friday in response to Shaw's letter. "Members are unequivocally instructed to refrain from any collective action to withhold their services from the Company, to diminish their services or to disrupt operations for illegal reasons."

Nick Granath , and a lawyer representing the mechanics union, said Southwest and its senior leadership "should be ashamed."

"AMFA members at Southwest Airlines are doing their jobs in line with the requirements of their FAA-issued A & P licenses," he said. "Southwest Airlines should be grateful to these men and women for their dedication to safety, instead, it hurls unfounded accusations."

The escalating war of words between the airline and union come as Southwest CEO Gary Kelly tried to strike and conciliatory tone in an email to employees late Friday – his first official comments since the surge in out-of-service aircraft, which resulted in at least hundreds of canceled flights and thousands of delays.

Southwest, which operates a fleet of about 750 Boeing 737s, typically has as many as 20 planes out of service at any given time time. The airline previously reported earlier this month had seen that increase in the 40s on a daily basis, before the number jumped to 60 last week.

"We've suddenly found ourselves in a period of tension and turmoil surrounding out-of-service aircraft for maintenance and AMFA contract negotiations," Kelly wrote in his email, apologizing to employees and customers for "hardship" the last two weeks. "Our Mechanics are extraordinary, and I am proud of them, and they have been particularly heroic in getting the aircraft back to service over the last two weeks, they deserve a whole new job."

Earlier this month, and CBS News investigation discovered allegations by mechanics at Southwest of undue pressure to keep airplanes in service. We have heard from more than two dozen Southwest mechanics who say coworkers have been emboldened to write maintenance issues after our report has been drafted in an effort to fully comply with FAA regulations

Southwest planes taken out of service as mechanics raise safety concerns

Southwest Airlines and the AMFA have been locked in tense contract negotiations for six years. Last fall, the mechanics voted down on a new contract, and the airline says the current operational issue began almost immediately after the latest bargaining sessions. The recent "unprecedented increase" in out-of-service aircraft prompted Southwest to declare an "Operational State of Emergency" at five of its 20 maintenance facilities – Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas, Orlando and Phoenix. The emergency declaration allows the airline to assign additional work hours, change shifts and assignments, limit vacations and shift swaps as well as expand its use of third-party vendor mechanics

Out-of-service aircraft have been hindering the airline's operation for over a week now, leading to hundreds of cancellations and thousands of delays. On Saturday, Southwest continued to experience more delays and cancellations than any other U.S. carrier, according to FlightAware

But while hundreds of mechanics have signed up to work overtime at five maintenance bases where Southwest Airlines has declared an operational state of emergency, the airline told CBS News that it did not have to lean on overtime. " According to the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, only two mechanics – in Phoenix – were called to work overtime in the midst of the so-called 'operational emergency.' "

Southwest spokeswoman Brandy King told CBS News via email when that because of the operational emergency "only a limited number of mechanics are using vacation days" and the airline has "reallocated additional staffing to support scheduled and out-of-service aircraft" resulting in "more hands on deck" to do the necessary work, the need for overtime

When the initial state of emergency was announced on February 15, the union expressed concern over the possibility of overtime overdue leave workers being obsolete. Southwest said it did not need to "activate" mandatory overtime allowing the airline to "ensure we keep our Employees safe and not introduce unnecessary fatigue."

Southwest is steering some of the work away from its

Chief Operating Officer Mike Van de Ven said in a statement Tuesday that the airline was using a team of third-party vendors to handle as "much scheduled maintenance program work … as possible which allows our "

Van de Ven appeared to blame the union for the out-of-service aircraft, writing in a statement," AMFA has a history of work disruptions, and Southwest has two pending lawsuits against the union. We will investigate this current disruption and explore all possible remedies. "

AMFA's National Director Bret Oestreich responded, calling those claims" scapegoating "and "

The union told CBS News," All of the out-of-service aircraft were written for legitimate problems. "


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