A bitter dispute between American Airlines and its mechanics unions has turned ugly. The company’s mechanic has been arrested on September 5, 2019, for allegedly attempting to sabotage a flight with 150 people on board before it was scheduled to take off from the airline’s Miami hub earlier this summer.
The mechanic, Abdul-Majeed Marouf Ahmed Alani, has been charged with "willfully damaging, destroying or disabling an aircraft,” according to a criminal complaint affidavit filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida in Miami, which was first reported by the Miami Herald.
Alani is accused of tampering with the aircraft’s air data module (ADM), a component of the air data system, which reports critical flight parameters such as speed, pitch and other, and feeds it into the main avionics displays. The suspect allegedly used foam material to obstruct a pitot tube leading from the outside of the plane to its air data module (ADM).
The aircraft in question was an American Airlines’ Boeing 737-800 (registration N861NN0), scheduled to operate flight 2834 from Miami, Florida, to Nassau, the Bahamas, on July 17, 2019. Takeoff was aborted when the flight crew received an error alert while powering up the plane’s engines.
According to the airline, the plane, which was carrying 150 people on board, returned to the gate at Miami International Airport (MIA) and passengers were accommodated on a replacement aircraft for the flight. The 737 was taken out of service for maintenance inspections, during which, the sabotage attempt was discovered.
“At the time of the incident, the aircraft was taken out of service, maintenance was performed and after an inspection to ensure it was safe the aircraft was returned to service. American immediately notified federal law enforcement who took over the investigation with our full cooperation,” the airline explained in a statement to AeroTime.
“At American we have an unwavering commitment to the safety and security of our customers and team members and we are taking this matter very seriously”.
According to the criminal complaint viewed by The Miami Herald, Alani told federal investigators that “his intention was not to cause harm to the aircraft or its passengers", but that he was “upset” over the stalled contract negotiations between the mechanics’ union and the airline, which “had affected him financially”. Alani allegedly explained that he tampered with the aircraft’s ADM hoping he would then get overtime work on the plane.
The bad blood
A labor dispute over contract negotiations between American Airlines and its mechanics unions had already reached a boiling point, when in May 2019, the company filed a lawsuit against the unions claiming that their members purposefully slowed down work causing flight disruptions. The unions have denied the allegations. “From a union standpoint we wouldn’t condone even the thought of doing this,” Gary Peterson, a vice president at Transport Workers Union of America, was quoted as saying by CNBC.
In August 2019, a federal court in Texas issued a permanent injunction against the unions, prohibiting the airline’s employees from “calling, permitting, instigating, authorizing, encouraging, participating in, approving, or continuing any form of disruption to or interference with American’s airline operations,” including refusing to accept overtime, failing to complete any maintenance repairs in the normal course of work, or “any other action intended to cause aircraft to be out of service”.
The unions – the Transport Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO (TWU) and International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) – represent some 12,000 of the airline’s mechanics. Mediated negotiations between the American and the unions are set to resume in mid-September 2019.