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Southwest 737 MAX
An artist’s conception shows a Southwest Airlines 737 MAX taking to the air. (Credit: Boeing)

Is Boeing’s 737 MAX just a 737 jet, or is it something new? That question figures in a years-long battle between Southwest Airlines and its pilots union.

The fuel-efficient 737 MAX made its maiden test flight in January, and Southwest is due to receive the first plane of that breed in the first half of next year. The airline has put in firm orders for 30 of the MAX 7 variant and 170 of the MAX 8.

The issue is that the yet-to-be-delivered 737 MAX isn’t specifically named in the current labor agreement between the airline and the 8,300-member Southwest Airlines Pilots’ Association. The two sides have been negotiating over a new contract for more than four years, and dispute has become increasingly bitter. The pilots are seeking higher pay and an improved retirement package, while Southwest is seeking more flexible work rules and improvements in productivity.

The negotiations are currently in federal mediation.

For months, Southwest pilots have been saying that they won’t fly the 737 MAX when it’s delivered, because it’s not listed among the planes covered by the existing contract. Today the union filed a lawsuit asking a federal court in Dallas to block Southwest from flying the 737 MAX until the plane is officially listed in a new contract.

The lawsuit accuses Southwest of trying to negotiate the dispute over the 737 MAX “with an illegal gun to the head” of the union.

Southwest has argued that the MAX is basically the same as other versions of the 737 that are listed in the existing contract, just with different engines. At the same time, the airline has named the 737 MAX in recent (albeit rejected) contract proposals. Now it could be up to the court to decide just how new and different the MAX is.

Hat tip to Bloomberg News.

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