Southwest Pilots Sue Boeing for 'Deliberately' Misleading Airline About 737 MAX

Pilots for Southwest Airlines are suing Boeing for lost wages, seven months after the global grounding of Boeing's troubled 737 Max airplanes.

In a complaint filed Monday, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) says Boeing "deliberately" misled them and the airline about the planes, resulting in more than $100 million in lost pilot wages.

The 737 MAX was grounded around the world after two crashes killed a combined 346 people. In October 2018, Lion Air Flight 610 crashed 12 minutes after takeoff, killing all 189 people on board. On March 10 of this year, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 suffered a similar fate, crashing after only six minutes in the air as pilots struggled to control the aircraft. That crash killed all 157 passengers and crew.

According to the lawsuit, Boeing "abandoned sound design and engineering practices, withheld safety critical information from regulators and deliberately misled its customers, pilots and the public about the true scope of design changes to the 737 MAX."

"As pilots, there is nothing more important to us than the safety of our passengers," said SWAPA President Captain Jonathan L. Weaks in a press release. "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," added Weaks. "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."

Boeing vowed to "vigorously defend" the lawsuit, calling it "meritless."

The graphic below, provided by Statista, illustrates the number of 737 Max jets owned by airlines around the world, with Southwest having the most in operation and on order from Boeing.

Boeing 737 Max Statista
Airlines with Boeing 737 Max fleets. Statista

The two fatal crashes of the aircraft are believed to have been caused by a malfunction of Boeing's Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS).

MCAS was created for the 737 MAX, and critics allege that the design of the plane was part of a sequence of events that led to the crashes. The MAX variant, rather than being a complete redesign of the plane, updated the previous generation to increase fuel efficiency and carry additional passengers, adding bigger and more powerful engines. MCAS was intended to compensate for differences in the way the plane flew due to the refit.

The system was meant to compensate for the tendency of the plane to "nose down" when gaining altitude, and prevent a "stall" by taking control from pilots and pushing the nose of the plane up in the rare event it was needed. In the crashes, faulty data about the aircraft's "angle of attack" led to the system activating when it was not needed, which resulted in the system "correcting" an already correct position.

Having received additional training after the Lion Air crash, the pilots in the Ethiopian Air flight attempted to shut off the system, but it reactivated automatically and eventually caused the plane to enter a final, fatal stall.

Boeing has been working on a "software fix" and a new training regime to correct the issue, but regulators have not yet announced when the planes will be certified to fly again.

SWAPA represents 10,000 Southwest pilots. Southwest is the largest operator of the 737 MAX planes, with 31 of the grounded planes owned by the company, and a further 249 yet to be delivered.

Southwest Airles 737 MAX
Southwest Airlines is the biggest operator of Boeing's 737 MAX passenger jet. MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images/Getty

This article was updated to include an infographic.