An American Airlines mechanic is accused of sabotaging a flight because he was upset about stalled contract negotiations and wanted to earn some overtime fixing the plane.
According to a criminal complaint affidavit filed in federal court in Miami, Abdul-Majeed Marouf Ahmed Alani admitted during an interview Thursday that he tampered with a navigation system on a plane before a July 17 flight.
Alani was scheduled to make his first court appearance on the charge Friday afternoon. He was charged with willfully damaging or disabling an aircraft. The 60-year-old had worked for American since 1988 but was suspended after his arrest.
The incident occurred before an American jet was scheduled to fly from Miami to Nassau in the Bahamas with 150 people on board. As the pilots powered up the plane at Miami International Airport, they saw an error message for a system that tracks speed, nose direction and other critical flight information and aborted the takeoff.
When mechanics examined the plane, they found a piece of foam glued inside a navigation system part called an air data module. Video from an American Airlines surveillance camera captured a person who drove up to the plane, got out and spent seven minutes working around the compartment containing the navigation system, according to the affidavit.
The person was later identified by co-workers as Alani, in part by his distinctive limp, the affidavit said.
Aviation experts said it was unlikely that Alani's actions would put passengers at risk. Modern jets have several devices called pitot tubes and computers that process information about speed, heading, nose angle, altitude and other information. They also have systems that warn pilots when the information may be faulty — as apparently happened on the Miami plane.
John Hansman, an aeronautics professor at MIT, said pilots would notice the absence of an airspeed reading or conflicting readings and abort the takeoff, as they did on the July 17 flight.
"There are other ways to mess with the air data computer which are more subtle," Hansman said. "Then you would not have seen the problem until you get into flight."
Pitot tubes can be disabled by bird strikes or blocked by ice or even insects. Some accidents have resulted.
Nothing in the criminal complaint against Alani suggested any link to terrorism, and prosecutors did not indicate that any such charges are pending. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami declined to comment.
One of the unions representing American's mechanics distanced itself 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."
When interviewed Thursday by investigators, "Alani stated that his intention was not to cause harm to the aircraft or its passengers," according to the affidavit by Jose A. Ruiz, a federal air marshal who serves on an FBI terrorism task force.
Alani explained that stalled contract negotiations between American Airlines and the mechanics' unions were hurting him financially, and he tampered with the plane "to cause a delay or have the flight cancelled in anticipation of obtaining overtime work," Ruiz wrote.
American has accused mechanics of an illegal work slowdown that has led to hundreds of canceled flights in recent months. The airline successfully sued two unions that represent the workers. This week, both sides announced that they will resume negotiations Sept. 16 in Washington, with help from a federal mediator. The mechanics' unions have been trying to secure a new contract for more than three years.
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.
20 best airlines in the world
20 best airlines in the world
20. Hong Kong Airlines
Previous rank: 24
Why it's awesome: Hong Kong Airlines has been on an impressive growth streak over the past couple of years. Not only has it rapidly expanded its global network, the carrier has also worked to improve service and product. Hong Kong Airlines is a subsidiary of China's HNA Group.
Why it's awesome: Royal Dutch KLM is considered the oldest continuously operating airline in the world. Based out of Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, KLM is famous for its bright blue livery and Dutch house liquor bottle figurines. The airline is one half of the Franco-Dutch conglomerate Air France-KLM.
KLM also took home the prize for Best Business Class Seat in Europe.
Why it's awesome: Turkish Airlines is the flag carrier of Turkey and has its main hub at Istanbul's Ataturk Airport. The airline, with its ability to fly to over 100 countries and over 200 cities worldwide, hopes to turn its home base into a global transit hub.
Even though political unrest and security concerns have made life more complicated for Turkish Airlines, the carrier's high-quality service, and product offerings remain unchanged.
Turkish is a member of Star Alliance and had won the Skytrax award for Best Airline in Europe six years in a row before losing the title to Lufthansa last year.
(Photo by Vladimir Shtanko/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
17. Air New Zealand
Previous rank: 19
Why it's awesome: In 2018, Air New Zealand reclaimed the titles of World's Best Premium Economy Class and World's Best Premium Economy Seat from Aussie rival Qantas, the Kiwi carrier remains one of the industry's finest long-haul carriers.
In economy class, families can opt for the airlines innovative Skycouch that transforms a bank of three economy seats into a flat activity area.
Why it's awesome: Austrian Airlines has overcome a series of labor disputes in recent years, with its high level of service intact. In 2018, the Lufthansa-owned carrier, once again, took home the prize for Best Airline Staff Service in Europe. The Austrian flag carrier boasts a fleet of newly renovated long-haul Boeing 767-300ER and 777-200 jets flying out of its base in Vienna.
Economy fliers gave the Star Alliance member high marks for its efficient and effective service, as well as for the wealth of onboard dining and entertainment options.
Why it's awesome: Etihad Airways, based in Abu Dhabi, is the flag carrier of the United Arab Emirates, with its Airbus and Boeing fleet traveling to about 100 destinations. The airline has become famous for its trademark Residence flying apartments as well as its plush first-class and business-class suites.
Why it's awesome: Japan's flag carrier is one of the most respected airlines in the world. Reviewers on Skytrax praised Japan's second-largest airline for its attentive service, well-coordinated ground staff, and comfortable cabin.
For 2018, Japan Airlines once again won the award for Best Economy Class Airline Seat.
(Photo credit should read TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images)
12. Swiss International Air Lines
Previous rank: 14
Why it's awesome: Swiss International Air Lines emerged in 2002 from the remnants of the now defunct Swissair and is now a member of the Lufthansa corporate family. In 2016, the Basel-based carrier became the first in the world to operate the next generation Bombardier C-Series airliner.
Though some fliers found economy seat comfort to be lacking, most praised the cabin crew for its friendly service and the airline for its wide assortment of complimentary adult beverages.
Plus, the complimentary Swiss chocolate is always a fan favorite.
Why it's awesome: Even with strong competition from Virgin Australia, Qantas has been resurgent over the past couple of years. The airline received praise for its strong customer service and in-flight entertainment. And then there's Qantas' calling card — it has a fatality-free safety record in the jet era.
Why it's awesome: Thai Airways has long been an industry leader for quality service, so it's no surprise to find the Thai national carrier high up on the list. Though its most heralded products are its business and first-class services, fliers found its economy seats to be of high quality as well.
Economy fliers on Skytrax also noted the crew's friendly demeanor and delectable dining options.
In 2018, Thai Airways once again took home the award for the World's Best Economy Class, the World's Best Economy Class Onboard Catering, and the World's Best Airline Spa Facilities.
(Photo by C. V. Grinsven/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
9. Garuda Indonesia
Previous rank: 10
Why it's awesome: Garuda Indonesia has experienced a dramatic turnaround in recent years. The Indonesia flag carrier has undertaken extensive fleet renewal and service improvement measures to regain the trust of both fliers and safety regulators.
Economy fliers have raved about the airline's comfortable seats and selection of Southeast Asian cuisine.
In 2018, Garuda's flight attendants took home the award for the World's Best Cabin Crew for the third year in a row.
Why it's awesome: Founded in 1993, Hainan is the only Chinese airline to hold the coveted Skytrax five-star rating. In four short years, the airline surged from 22nd place all the way into the top 10. With a brand-new fleet of more than 160 Boeing and Airbus jets, Hainan is expanding rapidly throughout Asia, Europe, and Australia.
Reviewers on Skytrax praised the airline for its attentive service and quality business class accommodations.
Hainan also won the awards for Best Airline in China and Best Airline Cabin Crew in China.
Why it's awesome: Although Cathay Pacific, based in Hong Kong, fell back one spot from last year, the airline still retains its place as one of the most respected carriers from the Pacific rim. With a fleet of long-range Boeing 777-300ER jets and a business strategy centered on offering a high frequency of flights, Cathay is one of the finest flying experiences in Asia.
Skytrax reviewers gave the airline high marks for seat comfort, service quality, and in-flight entertainment.
Why it's awesome: Taiwan's EVA Air (pronounced ee-vee-ay) was founded in 1989 and is an offshoot of global container-shipping giant Evergreen Group. The Taipei-based carrier has grown immensely in the past two decades and now operates a large fleet of Airbus and Boeing wide-body jets. The airline is credited with pioneering the "premium economy" cabin.
(Photo by Fabrizio Gandolfo/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Previous rank: 4
Why it's awesome: Over the past 30 years, Dubai's Emirates has developed into one of the world's premier long-haul carriers. Operating almost exclusively through its palatial hub at Dubai International Airport, the carrier boasts the world's largest fleet of Airbus A380 superjumbos and Boeing 777 wide-body jets.
Emirates' state-of-the-art in-flight entertainment system includes a wide selection of video and music options on demand, and even allows for live television and sporting events on its "ice" entertainment system-equipped aircraft. In fact, Emirates has taken home Skytrax's award for Best In-Flight Entertainment 14 years running.
Why it's awesome: All Nippon Airways continues its march towards the top of the rankings. ANA is the largest international carrier in Japan and home to one of the world's largest fleets of Boeing 787 Dreamliners. ANA drew high praise from Skytrax reviewers across the board for cleanliness, service, and safety. Many of its planes feature slide-forward-style reclining seats that increase overall privacy, as well as power and USB outlets even in economy.
ANA also won Best Airline Staff in Asia and Best Cabin Crew in Japan.
(Photo by Fabrizio Gandolfo/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
2. Qatar Airways
Previous rank: 1
Why it's awesome: Qatar Airways falls back one spot to second.
The Doha-based airline received praise from reviewers for its seat comfort and in-flight entertainment. In fact, the airline boasts the second best in-flight entertainment system and economy class offering in the world The airline links over 150 destinations across the globe and is expanding its fleet to include the latest generation of long-haul airliners including the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350.
Qatar also took home the award for Best Airline in the Middle East, World's Best Business Class, and Best First Class Airline Lounge.
Why it's awesome: Singapore's standout service makes for a famously pleasant journey during which flight attendants are trained to treat customers with extreme care and respect. Personal TVs with plenty of entertainment options and hot towels served before take-off are just some of the economy perks.