MIAMI (CBSMIAMI) — An American Airlines mechanic appeared in federal court Friday afternoon accused of sabotaging a plane at Miami International Airport over stalled union contract negotiations.
According to a criminal complaint affidavit filed in federal court, Abdul-Majeed Marouf Ahmed Alani admitted that he tampered with a crucial navigation system on a plane that was about to fly 150 people to Nassau in the Bahamas on July 17. He said he did it so he could collect overtime work.
Pilots aborted the flight when they saw an error message for a system that tracks speed, nose direction and other critical flight information.
CBS4 has obtained the call made by the American Airlines pilot to the American Traffic Control Tower.
In it, the pilot says “Tower American 2834. Just, we got a work maintenance issue. We had some lights going on. We may have to go back to the gate. We’ll know in about 2 or 3 minutes.”
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.
Co-workers later identified the person as Alani, in part by his distinctive limp, the affidavit said.
When he was interviewed Thursday, “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 canceled in anticipation of obtaining overtime work,” Ruiz wrote.
In court Friday, Alani testified through an Arabic interpreter that he earned 7 to 8-thousand dollars a month and only had 3 to 4-hundred dollars in the bank. He said he owned land in Sarasota, which the federal judge said is worth only $5,500.
Alani was appointed a federal defender and will be held in pretrial detention until a hearing on Wednesday morning. Federal Public Defender Anthony Natalie said it was too early to comment about the charges.
His arraignment is scheduled for September 20 when formal charges will be announced.
Federal prosecutors say he could face up to 20 years in jail. A federal prosecutor said in court that she had learned that the airline planned to suspend ALANI without pay.
At Miami International Airport, American Airlines passengers who spoke with CBS4’s Peter D’Oench said they were alarmed by the charges.
“He hindered other peoples’ lives because of what his needs are,” said Dr. Joaquin Diego, a cardiologist from Miami. “I do think with technology, what it is today, they would have found out about this and I am not so sure how much safety would have been affected but this is not acceptable.”
Martha Mert added, “It’s scary to know that somebody would do something like that but I am glad that they detected it. It’s good that they check everything before they take off.”
Another traveler, Alejandro Sanclemente, echoed Dr. Diego’s sentiment that this was unacceptable.
“Safety is always a big concern and this is personal what he did, disabling a system like this and this is not acceptable,” he said.
Dr. Alan Matarasso, also of Miami, said, “I’m disappointed that someone would go to such lengths. Safety is the big concern and to disable a plane because you are upset about contract talks is not acceptable.”
Gregg Overman, the communications director for the Allied Pilots Association, released a statement reassuring passengers that their safety is the pilots union’s highest priority.
“The safety of our passengers will always be the highest priority of all of American Airlines’ front-line employees. As a result, this incident is disturbing and does not reflect APA’s absolute commitment to safety. We are responsible for delivering our passengers safely to their destinations and that’s a responsibility we hold dear.”
In a statement, American Airlines said it cooperated fully with the investigation.
“On July 17, flight 2834 from Miami to Nassau, Bahamas, returned to the gate due to a maintenance issue. Passengers boarded a new aircraft, which then re-departed for Nassau. 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. 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.”
Alani is currently charged with willfully damaging or disabling an aircraft.