Southwest Airlines Co. declared an “operational emergency” Friday because of an unusually high number of aircraft taken out of service for maintenance, and the carrier ordered all scheduled mechanics to show up for work or risk being fired.
Workers “alleging illness” will be required to provide a doctor’s note on their first day back at work, the airline said in a memo. Some workers might be called in on overtime, the carrier said, and those refusing to report for duty could face firing.
“This is not the type of communication I (or any leader) want to issue, but it is necessary to get our aircraft back in service in order to serve our customers,” according to the memo from Lonnie Warren, senior director of technical operations.
The number of planes taken out of service recently has more than doubled from the daily average of about 20, Southwest said in a statement, “with no common theme among the reported items.” The carrier had 750 Boeing Co. 737 aircraft in its fleet at the end of 2018, and operational planners have been working to minimize the effect on customers.
“We are requiring all hands on deck to address maintenance items so that we may promptly return aircraft to service,” the airline said.
Separately, Southwest alerted the Federal Aviation Administration about a maintenance issue involving the suitability of engine fuel-pump filter seals, or O-rings, on a limited number of planes, the regulator said in a statement. The airline completed the necessary repairs, the FAA said.
Southwest said all 22 affected aircraft have been returned to service.
The Dallas-based carrier has been in contract talks with the union representing mechanics for more than six years. Members of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Assn., representing 2,700 Southwest workers, rejected a tentative contract agreement in September.
In 2017, Southwest accused the union of encouraging members to refuse overtime assignments to pressure the company into contract talks. A lawsuit filed by the airline was suspended in 2018 after an initial agreement was reached.
The mechanics union’s national office didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment.
The maintenance issues were reported earlier by the Chicago Business Journal.