A mechanic for American Airlines was arrested Thursday on
charges of attempting to sabotage an airliner carrying 150 people. The problem
was discovered shortly before the Flight 2834 took off for an overwater flight
from Miami to Nassau on July 17.
The Associated Press reported that Abdul-Majeed Marouf Ahmed Alani appeared in federal court on Friday
to face charges of willfully damaging or disabling a plane. Despite a name that
might suggest an Islamic terror connection, Alani reportedly admitted to
tampering with the plane and said that his motive involved a contract dispute
with the airline.
Alani, age 60, had worked for American from 1988 up until his
arrest. He had also worked for Alaska Airlines for several years but was fired
from that job in 2008 after he made several maintenance errors with airplanes.
Alani was born in Iraq and became a US citizen in 1992.
Reports do not indicate what type of airplane was involved
in the sabotage, but American Airlines schedules show that the flight is
typically operated with a Boeing 737-800. The 737-800
is a variant of the same type as the 737 Max 8, but with a substantially
better safety record. American does operate 737 Max 8s, but the Max
8 fleet remains grounded after two crashes revealed problems with the plane’s
The problem with Flight 2834 involved an air data module
(ADM). This is an avionics computer that performs similar functions to the
pitot-static system in a light airplane, providing inputs to flight displays
for airspeed, altitude, and vertical speed.
In most turbine airplanes, vital systems such as the ADM are
triple-redundant. Each pilot has a separate system. The two primary systems are
backed up by a third independent standby system. Onboard computers monitor each
system and compare them against each other. If an error is detected in one of
the systems, a message notifies the pilots. Standard procedure is to compare
the three systems and determine which is incorrect. The failing system can then
be switched to a reversionary mode for the remainder of the flight.
The crew discovered the error on the takeoff roll, which
means that the airspeed indication was affected. Crews closely monitor the
plane’s speed on takeoff and if a problem is detected at low speed, the takeoff
can be aborted safely. Often, the crew can troubleshoot the problem on the
ground and proceed with the flight. In this case, they would have been required
to return to the gate for maintenance.
The maintenance technicians discovered that one of the ADMs
had a piece of foam glued inside it. After the sabotage was discovered,
surveillance video revealed a person who drove up to the plane and spent seven
minutes working inside the cockpit. The person on the video was identified as Alani.
Federal investigators wrote in an affidavit that Alani
admitted to the sabotage and said that he wanted “to cause a delay or have the
flight canceled in anticipation of obtaining overtime work.” American’s mechanic
unions are involved in a contract dispute in which talks broke off last April.
Negotiations are set to resume later this month.
Regardless of the motive, sabotaging an airplane is a
federal crime. Willfully disabling an aircraft carries a possible sentence
of up to 20 years in jail. Alani has reportedly already been fired by American
and the FAA has suspended his mechanic license for 30 days. It is likely that his
license will eventually be revoked entirely.
Because of the redundancy involved in today’s airliners, the
sabotage posed very little threat to the safety of the flight. The airplane’s comparison
monitoring systems worked as designed and flagged the problem to pilots who
followed the correct procedures and aborted the flight before the plane left
the ground. However, the hundreds of people were inconvenienced and repairing
the problem likely cost American thousands of dollars. The breach of trust that
is involved in a mechanic purposely sabotaging an airplane is so great that
Alani should never be allowed to work as a mechanic again.