A top Federal Aviation Administration official on Friday sent a letter to Southwest Airlines and its mechanics union, warning them about the safety risks of their high-profile spat that began nearly a month ago.
"The FAA cautions that a breakdown in the relationship between Southwest and AMFA (Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association) raises concern about the ongoing effectiveness of the airline's safety management system,'' Ali Bahrami, associate administrator for aviation safety said in the letter.
Bahrami noted that Southwest recently filed a lawsuit against the union, which alleged that a small group of its 2,400 mechanics are writing up an unprecedented number of planes for maintenance in a deliberate work slowdown as contract talks drag on.
The union says Southwest is making mechanics the scapegoat for safety issues. It counter-sued Southwest on Friday, including a defamation claim against Southwest Chief Operating Officer Mike Van de Ven. Van de Ven has publicly blamed the mechanics union for a spike in aircraft taken out of service. The maintenance issues have caused caused heavy flight cancellations and delays for the past few weeks.
"In the midst of this litigation, I write to emphasize the importance of ensuring cooperatively, in accordance with FAA standards, the highest level of safety in the airline's operation,'' Bahrami said in the letter, which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal. "The FAA trusts that Southwest and AMFA will strive to ensure that any judicial order that might result from the litigation does not constrain appropriate safety activities.''
In a statement Southwest spokeswoman Brandy King called the letter and increased oversight by the FAA "normal protocol'' in times of labor unrest to ensure safety.
"We appreciate the FAA’s oversight and maintain our dedicated focus on assuring the highest level of compliance and safety at all times,'' she said.
Southwest and its mechanics have been in contract negotiations for six years. AMFA members rejected a tentative agreement last fall. The airline claims the reported maintenance issues escalated shortly after the latest talks broke off. Negotiations, which are being overseen by a federal mediator, are due to resume next week.
Southwest is already under FAA investigation for the discrepancies in how it calculates weight and balance for its aircraft, an issue unrelated to the dispute with the mechanics.
Southwest has regularly been canceling more than 100 flights per day, the most of any U.S. carrier, and delaying hundreds more due to the spike in maintenance issues. This week, the airline canceled 118 flights on Tuesday and 96 on Wednesday and 78 on Thursday, according to flight tracker FlightAware.
Southwest CEO Gary Kelly this week said the spike in last-minute maintenance issues is costing the airline millions of dollars weekly.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: FAA: Southwest Airlines spat with mechanics raises safety concerns