Suspended routes are stacking up as American, Southwest wait for beleaguered 737 Max. (David Bro/Zuma Press/TNS)

By Dominic Gates The Seattle Times (TNS)

The union representing almost 10,000 pilots who fly for Southwest Airlines filed suit against Boeing in Dallas Monday, alleging in blistering language that the jetmaker deliberately misled its pilots about the safety of the 737 Max aircraft.

Filed on behalf of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) — whose pilots fly the largest fleet of 737s in the world — the lawsuit seeks damages for loss of wages and other costs due to the grounding of the Max, which the union estimates at $115 million through the end of this year.

In a scathing indictment of Boeing, the suit directly attacks the manufacturer’s integrity. It accuses Boeing of deliberately putting profits ahead of safety considerations.

The lawsuit alleges Boeing falsely represented that the “737 Max aircraft was safe, airworthy, and was essentially the same as the time-tested 737 aircraft that SWAPA pilots already were flying.”

“Boeing made a calculated decision to rush a re-engined aircraft to market to secure its single-aisle market share and prioritize its bottom line,” the introduction to the suit states. “In doing so, Boeing abandoned sound design and engineering practices, withheld safety critical information from regulators and deliberately mislead its customers, pilots and the public.

“Boeing’s misrepresentations caused SWAPA to believe that the 737 Max aircraft was safe,” the suit goes on, then adds starkly: “Those representations proved to be false.”

Southwest, an all-737 airline, has 34 Maxes parked on the ground in Victorville, California, a fleet that was expected to grow to 58 Maxes by year end. The six-month grounding of the jet has forced the airline to cancel 30,000 scheduled flights, hitting its pilots with lost flying and lost pay.

Boeing issued a statement expressing “the greatest respect” for Southwest’s pilots but declaring that “we believe this lawsuit is meritless and will vigorously defend against it.”

“We will continue to work with Southwest Airlines and its pilots on efforts to safely return the e to service,” Boeing added.

In a statement, the Dallas-based airline said it will strive to share with its employees the compensation Southwest expects to receive from Boeing.

“As our CEO Gary Kelly has previously stated, all Southwest Employees have been impacted by the Max grounding, and it is our intent to allocate, as appropriate, any compensation received from a Boeing business settlement with all Employees via Profit Sharing.”

SWAPA anger

Southwest has a large fleet of 715 Boeing 737s, so the Maxes represent more than 8% of its planned year-end fleet, with service not set to resume until 2020.

SWAPA said the grounding means “a significant and ever-expanding financial loss as a result of Boeing’s negligence.”

In an interview, SWAPA president captain Jon Weaks said the estimate of $115 million consists mostly of lost pay, with an additional amount to cover the union’s legal costs associated with responding to subpoenas from the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Weaks defended the complaint’s strident attack on Boeing, citing the design of the aircraft’s new flight-control system — Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) — that activated erroneously on the two crash flights in Indonesia and Ethiopia.

“If fed erroneous data from a single angle-of-attack sensor, (MCAS) would command the aircraft nose-down and into an unrecoverable dive without pilot input or knowledge,” the lawsuit states, adding that the two air accidents, in which a total of 346 people died, were “tragic and preventable.”

“This centers around MCAS,” said Weaks. “You cannot train for what’s not in the (pilot) manual. And MCAS was not in the manual.”

Weaks pointed blame at Boeing’s design and rejected the idea that the pilots on the two crashed flights should be held responsible because they may have lacked the skills of the best-trained U.S. pilots.

“I’ve got the greatest level of admiration and confidence in our SWAPA pilots,” he said. “But the overriding premise is that Boeing should never have put any pilot in a situation like that.”

At the same time, Weaks maintained that when the Max returns to service, it will be safe to fly.

“This will be the most examined airplane known to man when it’s brought back,” he said. “The errors that made MCAS such a predator will be engineered out of the system. It’ll be one of the safest airplanes in the fleet.”

Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association (APA), the union representing pilots at American Airlines, said APA’s members are working both to win compensation for financial loss and also to ensure that the mistakes in the original design of the Max “are not repeated in the recertification of this airplane.”

However, he said that for now, “we’ll go through our company to ensure the financial damage is repaired,” while reserving the right to take additional action later “if we don’t see success.”

“We understand that American Airlines will seek compensation repair from Boeing,” he said. “We believe our pilots … are better served seeking this compensation through American Airlines rather than directly from Boeing.”

American has 24 Maxes currently grounded and had planned to have 40 in its fleet by year end.

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the union that represents pilots at United, the third U.S. carrier with Maxes grounded, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

SWAPA’s lawsuit mentions that in July 2016, Boeing’s 737 chief technical pilot, Mark Forkner, invited Southwest pilots to participate in training for the differences between the 737 Max and the previous 737 model already in the airline’s fleet.

“Boeing’s differences training did not include instructions on MCAS and at no point during Boeing’s presentation did Boeing disclose the existence of MCAS or its associated risks,” the complaint states.

During the certification of the Max, it was Forkner who suggested to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in an email that MCAS not be included in the pilot manual.

Forkner left Boeing in 2018 and is now a first officer with Southwest Airlines. Last month, The Seattle Times reported that Forkner has refused to provide documents sought by federal prosecutors investigating the crashes, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

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