Southwest Airlines Pilots Sue Boeing For $100 Million

Filed Under: Southwest

Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA), which represents nearly 10,000 Southwest Airlines pilots, has just filed a lawsuit against Boeing for $100 million. The lawsuit has been filed in the District Court of Dallas County, and involves pilots feeling that Boeing has deliberately misled pilots about the 737 MAX.

Why Southwest Pilots Are Suing Boeing Over The 737 MAX

The 737 MAX has been grounded globally since March, and Southwest Airlines was the largest operator of the plane type. The lawsuit says that Southwest Airlines pilots agreed to fly the plane based on Boeing representing to them that it was airworthy and was essentially the same as the previous 737 model.

They say that these false representations have cost 346 lives, have damaged the bond between pilots and passengers, and have reduced opportunities for air travel across the US and around the world (that last part seems to me like a bit of a stretch).

The monetary aspect of this lawsuit comes down to the 737 MAX grounding causing the elimination of more than 30,000 scheduled Southwest Airlines flights. This is causing a reduction of about 8% in passenger service by the end of 2019.

Since pilots are paid by the flight hour, pilots are arguing that they’re losing more than $100 million in pay as a result of these groundings.

As Captain Jonathan Weaks, President of SWAPA explains:

“As pilots, there is nothing more important to us than the safety of our passengers. We have to be able to trust Boeing to truthfully disclose the information we need to safely operate our aircraft. In the case of the 737 MAX, that absolutely did not happen.

It is critical that Boeing takes whatever time is necessary to safely return the MAX to service. Our pilots should not be expected to take a significant and ever-expanding financial loss as a result of Boeing’s negligence. We look forward to a solution that helps Boeing restore the confidence of both the flying public and the pilots who operate its aircraft.”

SWAPA has been negotiating with Boeing for compensation since early September, but that has gone nowhere, which is why they’ve decided to file this lawsuit.

Boeing has responded to this lawsuit by saying that they believe the lawsuit is meritless, and that they will vigorously defend against it.

What About A Settlement For The Airline?

What makes this lawsuit a bit confusing is that it’s expected that airlines operating the 737 MAX will have some sort of a business settlement with Boeing as a result of the losses incurred from the grounding of the 737 MAX.

It’s anyone’s guess what kind of an agreement will be reached. Southwest Airlines has said that the grounding of the 737 MAX is expected to cost them about $225 million in revenue for 2019. They’ve also said that they’re considering sharing some of the compensation with employees.

Now, presumably pilots wouldn’t be getting $100 million of any settlement as part of that, but I would assume they’d be getting something.

So I’m not fully sure how the lawsuit filed by the union would impact the general compensation to Southwest.

Bottom Line

I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not sure how much of a legal basis the pilots have with their claim.

Coming at this from a logical perspective (rather than a legal perspective — often not the same thing), if we agree that Boeing was being negligent, and if we agree that pilots lost out on significant pay as a result of the grounding of the plane, then pilots requesting compensation for this doesn’t seem unreasonable.

That being said, do they have grounds for directly suing Boeing? After all, it’s the company that has a direct relationship with Boeing, and not the pilots.

I do expect Boeing will do everything they can to defend themselves here, though, or else they would likely be sued by the employees of virtually every airline operating the 737 MAX.

Any lawyers want to chime in with their take on this situation?

  1. Pilots are usually certified on a handful, sometimes only one, plane type. I don’t think it’s baseless. What I would have expected though is a class action by all pilot unions together, and maybe one by all airlines (unless they all join in as one). That would be scary for Boeing.

  2. I’d imagine the contract with the pilots allows Southwest to pay them less than a full years worth of flying for cases such as this where it is outside the airline’s hands. In most other cases the pilots would get paid the full yearly amount for fewer hours than required. That said, I doubt Southwest feels they owe the pilots the difference even if there is a settlement to the company. That’s why the pilots are bringing their own lawsuit.

  3. I’m no lawyer and this sounds absurd but hey this is America. And hey unions probably want to take money from everyone.

    Now if any lawyers can chime in if this is possible.

    How about class action for EVERY FLYING passengers?

    The monetary aspect of this lawsuit comes down to the 737 MAX grounding causing the elimination of more than xxxx scheduled flights globally. This is causing a reduction of about x% in passenger service by the end of 2019. Therefore airlines have charged more to compensate and passengers have fewer flight options and have to opt for flying with a connection rather then a possible nonstop wasting productive time doing so. It also force customer to pay overpriced BA rather than being able to fly on lowcost Norwegian.

    Can we get this class action? (and please no Equifax BS payout)

  4. I’m 99% confident the pilots already have a provision in their contract for being paid for a minimum number of scheduled flight hours, though as this drags out, many flight hours (trips) are no longer being scheduled. This might be impacting pilot’s ability to hold a line (not sure if Southwest bids this way), which is often a quality of life perk that is a bit harder to quantify. At the end of the day, if this fiasco impacts southwest’s growth, then it has the potential to limit the career growth of some pilots as well (harder to move from FO to captain due to the need for captains not growing as fast as expected, for example).

    You can make a lot of arguments as far as the extent of liability here, but I have a feeling this won’t get very far. A ruling in favor of the pilots here would have more far-reaching implications than just commercial aviation manufacturing, and it’s not a Pandora’s box that anyone will want to open.

  5. No lawyer here, and I don’t understand this. I’m assuming the contract with for lease or purchase with the product (aircraft) is between Boeing and the airlines, not the pilots or any other employees. Also, are pilots pay guaranteed regardless if there is work or not? If they are, then that is responsibility of the airline, and they should factor in lost wages on the settlement the airline will have with Boeing. Bypassing the employer and going for Boeing seems flimsy money grab.

  6. Pilots should then reimburse all wages made on the MAX pre-grounding, as according to them Boeing should have been testing during this time.

  7. Southwest only fly 737 and 737 Max aircraft. My guess, given that Boeing marketed the Max as the same class as 737, all Max pilots are also 737 certified. I do not really understand the airline lingo that they have cancelled all 737 Max flights. I assume Southwest is substituting 737 planes in place of 737 Max aircraft while they are grounded. Just as I often see United constantly swapping out airplanes on my booked flights as my flight date approaches . I doubt there is this big gap where pilots or the flying public are being under served by these “cancelled” Max flights.

  8. The “lost earnings” part of the suit could stand up in court, since it can be quantified and is an actual financial loss. The part about “the “bond between the pilots and passengers” is really difficult to quantify, especially since pilots and passengers have learned about the the problems with the Max at pretty much the same time. As for the loss of life, I think a court will pitch this immediately on the grounds that a US labor union whose members weren’t involved in any way with the crashes has no involvement. The union could pursue an “emotional suffering” claim for the period between the time we began to learn about the problems with the Max and the MCAS and WN grounding the planes, but that’s iffy IMO>

    @Eskimo – interesting idea but difficult to quantify, since many airlines were able to absorb much or all of the capacity loss with by leasing parked aircraft (IIRC, United did this) or flying non-MAX aircraft more, and many passengers were able to rebook on other airlines. You’d almost have to crunch the figures market by market, or some people could be underpaid while others who had little or no out-of-pocket cost could get a windfall. Also, the sheer expense of pursuing such a case would result in a huge chunk of any award going to legal costs rather than passengers.

    @Memento – Southwest has cancelled hundreds of flights, and continues to cancel more. WN was able to absorb some of the loss using reserve aircraft (or possibly flying some non-Max 737s more, that I don’t know), but there was a real reduction in flying and thus loss of income for members of the union. Quantifying the loss will be the question in court, presuming the court allows that portion of the suit to continue, which seems likely based on what info we have now.

  9. They should sue WN itself too. WN has a lot of sway on Boeing’s decisions, and its not a stretch to say Boeing took WN’s attitude of “no new training” very seriously when they made the lousy decisions.

  10. Sue the two negligent airlines with poorly maintained aircraft (dodgy parts, record falsification, and test flights with passengers), bad management, and poorly trained inexperienced pilots and first officers.

  11. @CraigTPA

    some people could be underpaid while others who had little or no out-of-pocket cost could get a windfall. Also, the sheer expense of pursuing such a case would result in a huge chunk of any award going to legal costs rather than passengers

    Sounds just like Equifax. So this should be possible right? A big payday for Munoz, Parker, Dewey, Cheatem & Howe LLP Law Firm.

    How to quantify, simple. Since airlines are asking Boeing for compensation then whatever lost revenue payout x airline profit margin x (maybe load factor) = opportunity cost to flyers.
    Am I missing something?

    I hope you practice law. This is interesting.

  12. The pilots don’t have a contract with Boeing, implied or otherwise. They are not a injured party. e.i. They gave no standing.

    There is no court precedent for their position. If there were ANYBODY that lost money indirectly anytime for any reason could collect. A drunk driver knocks over a power pole, therefore my place of business looses power. I cant work. I sue the power company.

    This is ambulance chasing at best.

    First judge should it throw it out for being frivolous with an admonishment for possible fines.

    There is a whole lot going on here than Boeing designing a back up system for a back up system that relied on one sensor.

    Most people have no idea, due to media hype, just how many levels down this MCAS system is.

    BTW Airbus uses the same sensor. Which has nearly resulted in several near crashes.

    You just reported yesterday on Ethiopia Airlines. What you didn’t report is in Ethiopia a 14 year old aircraft apprentice can sign off a RTF (return to flight). The FAA has no jurisdiction there.

    Read the actual (not media reported) NTSB time line of both crashes. IT WAS PILOT ERROR about 10 different ways. If they had better training both crashes were recoverable. In fact on the previous flight on that same Lion aircraft had an instructor pilot sitting jump seat. He reached over and shut off the the stab motors per the emergency check list and told dumb asses to fly the airplane…. manually. The ground crew didn’t understand the reported problem and returned the aircraft to flight ( penciled whipped it). That aircraft then crashed because the next crew did not know how to fly it…. manually.

    This issue of “pilots”. inability to the fly the airplane, not punch buttons on the flight management computer, is a ongoing issue. Did you know there is no requirement for commercial pilots to learn aerobatics? So when there is an aircraft upset (the plane un-expectently rolled upside down) the pilots don’t know how to recover!

    One thing that nobody else is talking about: all the countries that initially grounded the MAX are vendors for Airbus. They are also the ones holding up returning the MAX to flight. The Max was taking back market share from Airbus.

    You do the math. It is not rocket science.

    BTW. I have no skin in this game.
    I do have 45 years working in aircraft overhaul. I don’t have any preference as to aircraft manufactures. I can guarantee you they ALL have safety of flight issues. Yet I have no fear of flying.

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