The arrest of a veteran American Airlines mechanic this week for allegedly sabotaging a plane at Miami International Airport an hour before takeoff in July sparked condemnation by the airline and its mechanics union Friday — and raised troubling safety concerns for travelers.
And there was a major new development: the 60-year-old mechanic was fired from Alaska Airlines a decade ago, after a series of “missteps that led to multiple FAA investigations” and later unsuccessfully sued the airline for discrimination, according to a report by Business Insider.
Alaska spokesman Ray Lane confirmed Abdul-Majeed Marouf Ahmed Alani was an avionics technician and line avionics technician who worked for Seattle-based Alaska from January-August 1990 and again from June 1998-July 2008. He declined to comment on his personnel record or reason for leaving.
Those dates overlap with his employment at American, which he joined in 1988 and was based in Miami, so it’s unclear how he held both jobs or whether American knew his job history. The airline does not forbid employees to hold two jobs, with some exceptions.
In a letter to employees, the world’s largest airline called Alani’s alleged tampering of a Boeing 737-800 bound for the Bahamas with 150 people on board an “extremely serious” incident and said it was “disturbing and disappointing to all of us.”
Senior Vice President David Seymour suggested, though, that such tampering was a rare occurrence.
“The allegations involve one individual who compromised the safety of one of our aircraft,” he said in the letter. “Fortunately, with appropriate safety protocols and processes, this individual’s actions were discovered and mitigated before our aircraft flew.”
The TWU/IAM Association, which has been locked in contentious contract negotiations and a legal battle with American over what the airline calls an illegal work action this summer, condemned the incident. Alani told investigators he blocked a key computer system to force the delay or cancellation of the flight because he was upset about the stalled contract negotiations and said it hurt him financially.
A statement signed by association director Sito Pantoja and vice director Alex Garcia says:
“The TWU/IAM Association condemns, in the strongest possible terms, any conduct by any individual that jeopardizes the safe operation of an aircraft safety is the number one priority for our IAM and TWU members involved in the maintenance and operation of aircraft. These members are the most highly trained safety professionals in the airline industry. As a result, the US air transportation system is the safest in the world. Any conduct that jeopardizes that safety is not tolerated or condoned by the leadership or members of our organizations.”
How easy is it for an airline employee to tamper with a plane?
“The ease of access is definitely there,” said Bill Waldock, professor of safety science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona.
Mechanics and pilots walk around planes every day before and after flights to work on or check out the aircraft. All are certified by the Federal Aviation Administration and go through a background check.
In this February 2019 file photo, an American Airlines Boeing 737-800 taxis to runway 8R at Miami International Airport. (Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren for USA TODAY)
“These are the people who maintain the airplane, who fly the airplane,” said John Cox, a retired US Airways captain who runs aviation safety consulting firm Safety Operating Systems and writes USA TODAY’S Ask the Captain column. “It’s very appropriate, it’s very necessary, it’s essential that they have access to the airplane.”
Waldock said airlines have plenty of security and backup security and checks and balances, including quality assurance workers, to oversee work.
Alani wasn’t working his normal shift or station. Why didn’t anyone notice?
According to the criminal complaint against Alani in U.S. District Court in Miami, the mechanic should not have been working on a panel on the nose of the plane because there was no report of a mechanical issue there, nor a pending work order, American told law enforcement officials.
Two more red flags: He normally works on disabled aircraft in the maintenance hangar at Miami International, not on planes at the gate. And his shift was generally from 10 p.m. to 6:30 a.m., the airline said. He worked that shift on July 16 and then switched shifts to work the morning shift the next day, the day of the incident, working until 2:30 p.m., American told investigators. He worked a double.
Cox said there are so many moving parts on the aircraft ramp that Alani, a veteran worker, might have appeared as if he was simply doing his job. Cox walked around planes every day with a different to-do list and few second looks.
“The people around (me) don’t know what I’m doing,” he said. “You vet and train the individuals and you expect them to do the job that they’re supposed to do.”
American hasn’t commented on any specifics beyond its statements. Alani was been suspended from American after his arrest, American spokesman Ross Feinstein said.
There were 150 people on board Flight 2834. Were they in danger?
Scary as a disabled computer system on a plane about to take off sounds, Waldock and Cox insist passengers were never in danger because the blocked air data module (ADM) set off immediate warnings in the cockpit during a routine pre-departure check.
“It’s easily detectable because they’re going to get a big error message on the front of their screens on the instrument panel,” Waldock said. “It would tell them that the system isn’t functioning properly.”
That sends the plane back to the gate, which is what happened with Flight 2834.
“This is a very unfortunate action of a disgruntled individual, but it did not put people at risk because of the design of the airplane and the training of the pilots to make sure that all the systems are functional prior to flight,” Cox said.
In the unlikely case the error didn’t flash or wasn’t detected until the flight was airborne, there are backup systems that would kick in, Waldock and Cox said.
“There’s a standby set of instruments completely isolated from that whole (ADM) system that are intended to give you just enough information to be able to fly the airplane,” Waldock said.
American Airlines sabotage saga: a timeline
Here’s how event unfolded, according to court documents and flight-tracking service FlightAware.com.
July 17, 2019
8:39 a.m.: American Airlines flight 365 from Orlando International Airport arrives at Gate D49 Miami International Airport.
9:28-9:35 a.m.: Alani works on the plane at the gate, focusing on a compartment in the nose of the plane housing a key computer system, according to surveillance video. He later admitted deliberately obstructing the ADM system using a dark, Styrofoam-type material. He did not have a work order or request to be there at that time and usually works in the maintenance hangar.
9:36 a.m.: Alani gets back in his truck and leaves the area.
10:30 a.m.: American Airlines flight 2834 from Miami to Nassau, Bahamas, leaves the gate. Error messages appear in the flight deck of the Boeing 737-800 before it gets to the departure runway. Takeoff is aborted.
About 10:45 a.m.: The plane pulls into Gate D48 for maintenance. An American mechanic discovered a loose pitot tube and an ADM obstructed by a dark Styrofoam-type material.
12:13 p.m. The plane is deemed non-airworthy and taken out of service. It is towed to a hangar for more in-depth maintenance. The obstructed ADM was removed and replaced.
3:20 p.m. Passengers on Flight 2834 take off on another plane to Nassau, five hours late.
4:12 a.m: The plane is put back in service.
American Airlines corporate security contacts the FBI about possible sabotage to one of its planes and shared surveillance video.
Alani is arrested in Miami and charged with “willfully damaging, destroying, disabling, or wrecking an aircraft.” He told law enforcement officials he was “upset at the stalled contract dispute between the union workers and American Airlines, and that this dispute had affected him financially.” He said he didn’t intend to harm anyone but wanted to delay or cancel the flight to earn overtime.
Alani made his first appearance in U.S. District Court in Miami and did not enter a plea, according to CNN. A bond hearing is set for Wednesday.
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