Southwest Airlines has settled a whistleblower lawsuit filed by a mechanic alleging that he was disciplined for finding and reporting two cracks in the fuselage of a Boeing 737-700 while performing a routine maintenance check.
Southwest Airlines has agreed to remove the disciplinary action from the mechanic’s file and to pay him $35,000 in legal fees.
The lawsuit was filed under the whistleblower protections of the so-called AIR-21 statute (the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century.) The statute provides an appeal process for airline workers who are fired or otherwise disciplined for reporting safety information. The settlement was reached after a January 8 Department of Labor Administrative Judge dismissed Southwest’s motion for summary judgment and granted in part the mechanic’s motion for summary judgment. The mechanic was represented by attorney Lee Seham (who is also the lead union attorney in the lawsuit filed by mechanics American Airlines alleging pressure to violate safety rules).The Judge’s decision summarizes the allegations as follows: “On the evening of July 2, 2014, the [mechanic] was assigned by [Southwest] to perform a [maintenance] check on a Southwest Boeing 737-700 aircraft, N208WN. This maintenance check is part of Southwest’s Maintenance Procedural Manual (MPM). This check requires a mechanic to follow a task card which details the tasks to be accomplished.” The task card requires the ” mechanic to “ walkaround” the aircraft to visually inspect the fuselage. During his inspection, the [mechanic] discovered two cracks on the aircraft’s fuselage and documented them. Discovery of these cracks resulted in the aircraft being removed from service to be repaired.”
Thereafter, the mechanic was called into a meeting with his supervisors to “discuss the issue of working outside the scope of his assigned task.” He was then issued a “Letter of Instruction” advising the mechanic that he had acted outside the scope of work in the task card and warning him that further violations could result in further disciplinary actions. The mechanic alleged in his whistleblower complaint that the letter from Southwest “was calculated to, or had the effect of, intimidating [him] and dissuading him and other Southwest [mechanics] from reporting the discovery of cracks, abnormalities or defects out of fear of being disciplined.”
Southwest responded to the mechanic’s allegations claiming that the mechanic went outside the scope of his duties when he observed the cracks and reported them. The airline further claimed that its Letter of Instruction was issued because the mechanic worked “outside the scope of his task” and not because he reported a safety problem. It further claimed that the letter was not a disciplinary action and the mechanic was not entitled to whistleblower protection.
Fortunately, the administrative judge sided with the mechanic in dismissing Southwest’s claims and finding that the mechanic engaged in activities protected by AIR-21 and that Southwest was aware of it. Although no final decision was reached on the merits of the mechanic’s case, the settlement followed close on the heels of the judge’s decision.
As a long time safety advocate, former NTSB Member and airline mechanic, reading about these types of cases is very dismaying. It seems to me that any airline whose mechanics find cracks in an aircraft’s fuselage – significant enough to cause the aircraft to be removed from service for repair – should be commended. Certainly not disciplined.