An American Airlines mechanic appeared in federal court Friday on a sabotage charge accusing him of disabling a navigation system on a flight with 150 people aboard before it was scheduled to take off from Miami International Airport earlier this summer.
The reason, according to a criminal complaint filed in Miami federal court: Abdul-Majeed Marouf Ahmed Alani, a veteran employee, was upset over stalled union contract negotiations.
None of the passengers and crew on the flight to Nassau were injured because his tampering with the so-called air data module caused an error alert as the pilots powered up the plane’s engines on the runway July 17, according to the complaint affidavit.
As a result, flight No. 2834 was aborted and taken out of service for routine maintenance at American’s hangar at MIA, which is when the tampering with the ADM system was discovered during an inspection. An AA mechanic found a loosely connected tube in front of the nose gear underneath the cockpit that had been deliberately obstructed with some sort of hard foam material.
Alani, 60, of Tracy, California, near San Francisco, is charged with “willfully damaging, destroying or disabling an aircraft” and made his first appearance in Miami federal court on Friday. Alani, who was arrested Thursday morning by federal air marshals and FBI agents at MIA where he worked as an AA mechanic, will be held at a federal lock-up at least until his detention hearing next Wednesday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Maria Medetis said her office will seek to detain Alani, who was appointed a federal public defender by Magistrate Judge John J. O’Sullivan after he found the mechanic was unable to pay for his own defense.
At Friday’s first appearance, Alani spoke halting English and the judge asked for an Arabic interpreter to translate. Alana, who is from Iraq but has lived in the United States for decades, told the judge that he was making $7,000 to $8,000 a month from his job as a mechanic for American Airlines. He said he owned a property in Sarasota and leased a couple of cars, a 2018 Honda and 2016 Camaro.
O’Sullivan asked Alani if he was still employed. He didn’t respond immediately.
Medetis, the prosecutor, then interjected: “It is our understanding that he is going to be suspended without pay.”
After the hearing, Assistant Federal Public Defender Anthony Natale declined to comment about the sabotage allegations in the criminal complaint.
“Obviously, we just got the paperwork,” said Natale, a veteran federal public defender who was involved in the high-profile terrorism trial of Jose Padilla in Miami more than a decade ago. “That’s all I can say.”
For now, Alanis is being held on a criminal complaint but is expected to be indicted soon on a sabotage-related charge by a federal grand jury. His arraignment is scheduled for Sept. 20.
According to the complaint affidavit, Alani glued the foam inside the tube leading from outside the American Airlines plane to its air data module, a system that reports aircraft speed, pitch and other critical flight data. As a result, if the plane had taken off that day from MIA, the pilots would have had to operate the aircraft manually because the ADM system would not have received any computer data.
After his arrest Thursday, the affidavit says that Alani told federal air marshals assigned to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force that “his intention was not to cause harm to the aircraft or its passengers.”
He said that his motive in tampering with the navigational system was because he was “upset” over stalled contract negotiations between the mechanics’ union and American Airlines that has raged for months — that “the dispute had affected him financially.”
He further said he only tampered with the plane’s air data module “in order to cause a delay or have the flight canceled in anticipation of obtaining overtime work,” according to the affidavit.
Relations have become so strained between the 12,000-employee mechanics’ union and American Airlines that the organization vowed a “bloody” battle over the course of the summer that has led to bitter legal fights in Texas, where the company is headquartered.
Federal air marshals zeroed in on Alani, who has worked as an American Airlines mechanic since September 1988, after reviewing video footage that captured him exiting a white truck on the morning of July 17 at concourse D and approaching the plane, which had just arrived from Orlando, the affidavit says. The footage showed Alani, who walks with a limp, accessing the aircraft’s compartment where the navigation system was located in the plane, according to the affidavit, which was filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Alani, the federal charges said, spent about seven minutes doing the sabotage.
The air marshals, part of the Transportation Security Administration, also conducted interviews with three other AA mechanics who were with Alani after he tampered with the plane. They helped investigators identify him from the video footage.
On Friday, the mechanics union officials distanced themselves from Alani.
“The Transport Workers Union is shocked by the reported allegations of airplane sabotage by an employee,” TWU President John Samuelsen said in a statement. “If these allegations of sabotage are true, they are outrageous and indefensible, and we fully condemn such actions.”
In a statement, American Airlines said it cooperated fully with the investigation “and we are taking this matter very seriously.” The Fort Worth, Texas-based airline said the plane was taken out of service after the July incident and repaired and inspected before it was allowed to fly again.
In a message to employees, David Seymour, American’s senior vice president of operations, said the airline works with authorities and other experts to improve safety procedures. He said American maintains full trust and confidence in its employees.
“Fortunately, with appropriate safety protocols and processes, this individual’s actions were discovered and mitigated before our aircraft flew,” Seymour said. “We have been cooperating with authorities in this matter and will continue to do so.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.