Southwest Pilots Sue Carrier to Block Flying of Boeing’s Max

(Bloomberg) -

Southwest Airlines Co. pilots’ union asked a federal court to block the carrier from flying Boeing Co.’s newest 737 until the plane is negotiated into a new contract for the 8,300 aviators.

The union also wants the court to order Southwest to stop “delaying and frustrating bargaining” and fulfill its legal duty to make every effort to reach a contract if the airline wants to fly the 737 Max when it’s delivered next year. The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association filed the lawsuit in the federal court in Dallas on Monday.

The new Max has become the focal point of tensions between Southwest and the union, which have been in talks on a new contract for more than four years. Frustrated pilots, who have begun picketing at airports, want higher pay rates and better retirement contributions. The carrier is seeking to offset rising costs with guarantees of increased productivity.

Southwest is attempting to force the union “to negotiate the Max dispute with an illegal gun to the head of SWAPA,” according to the filing. “Southwest Airlines, in short, is presently engaging in a high stakes and illegal game of ‘chicken.”‘

Southwest, which is set to be the launch customer for the Max, maintains the new plane is just like others in the existing contract except for an updated engine, and doesn’t have to be specifically named. Listing aircraft that can be flown in a pilot contract and specifying rates of pay and related items is a common practice in the industry.

The Max 8 version of the plane is on track to enter the market in the first half of 2017, Ray Conner, CEO of Boeing’s commercial airplane unit, said on May 11. Southwest has said it expects the Max to arrive in the third quarter of next year, while the pilots’ lawsuit set the date in March. The legal challenge also includes the Max 7 variant, which Southwest won’t get until 2019.

The lawsuit followed the union’s request last week that Southwest guarantee it won’t operate the plane before it’s named in an approved contract. Doing so would violate a provision of the Railway Labor Act that requires both sides to maintain the status quo during talks, the lawsuit said. The act governs negotiations involving airlines and organized labor, setting standards under which a strike can occur.

Southwest’s “intent and expectation” is that a new agreement will be in place by the time the Max enters service next year, Randy Babbitt, senior vice president for labor relations, said in a May 13 response to the union. The airline is prepared to discuss the issue during negotiations, he said.

The carrier historically has negotiated specific aircraft into contracts, the pilots said, and didn’t fly the Boeing 737-800 until it was listed in a side letter to the existing labor accord in 2011. Provisions for operating the Max were included in an earlier agreement rejected by pilots in November.

Pilots plan to picket Southwest’s annual shareholder meeting May 18 in Chicago and at the city’s Midway Airport.