Southwest is Using A Federal Safety Hotline Against Its Own Technicians
What happens when an airline discourages its employees from reporting safety issues?
Since this summer, Southwest Airlines has begun punishing its Aircraft Maintenance Technicians (AMTs) who utilize the federal safety hotline called the Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP). This program, set up to enhance aviation safety by encouraging voluntary reporting of safety issues and events, is intended to be used without fear of retribution.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, “Under ASAP, safety issues are not resolved through punishment or discipline.” Indeed, the primary purpose of ASAP is to prevent aviation disasters by promoting the open discussion of safety lapses, rather than driving them underground.
The number of reports, however, is greatly diminishing. In a typical week, Southwest technicians report 3–5 calls to ASAP. But this September there were only 6 calls and only 2 calls in October so far.
This staggering decline in ASAP reports has a clear cause. Self-reporting of safety incidents has declined as a result of Southwest’s new policy of using information from confidential ASAP filings to discipline the filing mechanic. Southwest’s betrayal of the ASAP confidentiality guarantee effectively nullifies the program.
In April, a Southwest employee filed an ASAP report expecting anonymity and a non-disciplinary letter of instruction. In June, they received instead a personal letter of warning, including the suspension of certain credentials.
The same thing happened in August. And even as far back as December 2018.
The Company claims their actions were the result of a parallel investigation. They conveniently appointed one manager to oversee both the ASAP program and disciplinary action. Earlier this year, the previous manager left the role due to unethical outcomes.
“The Company’s ongoing attempts to cripple union officers and highly experienced AMTs engaged in safety reporting has got to end,” said AMFA National Director Bret Oestreich.
“The continued strong-arming of AMTs is not healthy for this Company, its employees, or the safety of the flying public. By balancing both safety system and individual accountability, it’s time to hold Vice President of Maintenance Operations Landon Nitschke and senior Southwest managers accountable for actions that subvert Just Culture and their AMTs’ compliance efforts,” he continued.
We raised these concerns about Southwest and their jeopardizing the Safety Management System in these jarring disciplinary decisions to Southwest’s CEO Gary Kelly, and were met not with a substantive response — or any response at all. Instead, Kelly ignored our concerns and we were met with a response from VP Kurt Kinder, which simply asked more questions.
The FAA requires each airline to have a safety management system. Our Memorandum of Understanding, essentially a commitment letter from Southwest stating they will not punish anyone utilizing a safety program, expires in December. If Southwest doesn’t allow their AMTs to report incidents without retribution, for the sake of the flying public’s safety, we will not be able to re-sign any such agreement.
As the representatives of Southwest’s licensed, expert aircraft maintenance technicians, we have been subject to persistent pressure from the airline. Even now, Southwest is engaged in litigation that, if successful, would have the effect of suppressing reports of aircraft damage. Nonetheless, with its implementation of disciplinary policies in conflict of the federal reporting program, Southwest’s actions put safety behind other objectives. With these latest attacks on what’s left of the safety culture at Southwest, we ask the traveling public to join us in holding management accountable.