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American Airlines mechanic sentenced to 3 years for tampering with plane in Miami

American Airlines airplanes parked at Miami International Airport in a September 2015 file image. (Fabio Lamanna/Dreamstime/TNS)
March 06, 2020

An American Airlines mechanic convicted of sabotaging a navigation system on a Miami flight with 150 passengers aboard was sentenced to three years in prison Wednesday after a legal debate over whether he “recklessly” or “intentionally” endangered the safety of the aircraft.

Abdul-Majeed Marouf Ahmed Alani, 60, who pleaded guilty in December to tampering with the aircraft before takeoff last summer at Miami International Airport, received the benefit of a “reckless” finding by U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke. It was based on an agreement between his defense attorney and federal prosecutors.

Had the judge found that his tampering with the plane’s guidance system was intended to bring it down, Alani could have been sent to prison for two to three times longer under federal sentencing guidelines.

In the end, however, Cooke refused to grant the defendant’s request for 2 1/2 years in prison, saying his tampering — despite a backup in place — might have caused “some unfortunate calamity.” The judge noted that even the mechanic told federal investigators that he wouldn’t have wanted his family to be on that plane after he obstructed one of the aircraft’s two air data module systems with a piece of foam-like material. That, in turn, triggered an error alert on the runway before takeoff so that the pilot could return the plane to the gate for maintenance.

Alani’s defense attorney, Jonathan Meltz, told the judge that his intent was not to bring harm to the passengers, but rather to cause a flight delay or cancellation so that he could obtain overtime pay doing maintenance work on it. “The intent of Mr. Alani was solely financial,” Meltz said.

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Assistant U.S. Attorney Randy Hummel reinforced that point by saying that clearly Alani intended to tamper with the aircraft’s guidance system, but it was not to cause it to crash after takeoff. “I don’t see that rising to the level of intent to bring down the plane, but I do see it as extreme recklessness,” Hummel told the judge.

Cooke also questioned the prosecutor on whether Alani’s case involved any connection to terrorism. The judge asked Hummel why she received an email from someone, without disclosing details, suggesting that Alani’s actions were motivated by terrorism. Hummel pointed out that after his arrest in September, FBI agents found “very disturbing videos” of the Islamic State terrorist group, or ISIS, on Alani’s smartphone, but they proved inconclusive.

“I don’t have a linkage of Mr. Alani being a member of ISIS,” Hummel told the judge, saying the case is not related to terrorism.

The Iraqi-born Alani, who commuted from his home in the San Francisco Bay Area to his American Airlines job at MIA, has been detained at the Federal Detention Center since his arrest in September. He had worked for the airline for 30 years.

At Alani’s detention hearing in September after his arrest, prosecutors suggested that Alani may have possible links to the Middle East terrorist group. Prosecutors said Alani allowed the FBI to search his smartphone and agents found an ISIS video in which a person was being shot in the head, and that he sent the video to someone with an Arabic message asking “Allah” to take revenge against non-Muslims. In addition, they said Alani sent $700 to someone in Iraq, where he was born and has family.

But after his arrest, Alani also told investigators that he disabled the aircraft’s navigation system on the morning of July 17 because he was upset over stalled union contract negotiations with American Airlines. He said he wanted to generate some overtime for maintenance on the plane. After putting in a double shift on July 17, he actually did some overtime work on the disabled plane. On average, he made $9,400 a month as an American mechanic.

The Miami-Nassau flight was aborted before takeoff at Miami International Airport after an error alert appeared on the navigation system.

Alani was accused of tampering with the plane’s air data module, a system that reports aircraft speed, pitch and other critical flight data to pilots.

At the detention hearing, prosecutor Maria Medetis said Alani admitted to federal investigators that his tampering with the plane’s navigation system was dangerous. When they asked him whether he would allow himself or his own family to fly on the jet without the system, he said “no,” Medetis said.

Medetis said investigators also spoke with the American Airlines pilot of the targeted plane, and he said that without a functional navigation system “it could have resulted in a crash.”

AA pilot Richard Shafer said he disagreed with the opinion of the defense’s expert saying there was “no danger” to the flight’s passengers and crew. “I firmly believe that the deliberate tampering with the ADM of my aircraft would have exposed my passengers and crew to a higher level of danger had the aircraft gone airborne,” Shafer said in a court declaration.

Alani’s tampering with the air data module system was discovered during an inspection of the plane at American Airlines’ hangar at MIA. 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. Video footage also showed Alani tampering with the navigation system.

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© 2020 Miami Herald

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.