American Airlines and its mechanics have been locked in prolonged negotiations for years. Things escalated recently when the unions were slapped by a judge for engaging in an illegal job action, but that hasn’t solved the problem. Both sides seem entrenched in their positions, and resolution is unlikely in the near future. Things may seem bleak in that regard, but even at its bleakest, you never expect aircraft sabotage. Could someone really go so far as to try to put lives in danger over a contract negotiation? Apparently so.
In July, a long-time mechanic for American in Miami glued a foam block strategically-placed to prevent the aircraft’s computers from receiving data from sensors. In just seven minutes, he had created a serious — though not likely fatal — problem. The aircraft was loaded and ready to fly from Miami to Nassau, but the airplane did its job. Alerts went off, and the pilots returned to the gate. The airplane was taken out of service and fixed.
Why would this mechanic do something like this? Was it terrorism? Not in the way you might expect. I’ll let the Miami Herald explain.
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.
Sabotage has happened before, but it’s incredibly rare. Aircraft mechanics are well-trained and take pride in keeping airplanes airworthy. Much of the initial reaction I saw from other mechanics was that this guy should be stripped of his license and thrown in jail, or worse. It’s the cardinal sin. You don’t harm an airplane.
But this mechanic appears to have been swept up in a very Trumpian way. There was a lot of incendiary rhetoric coming from the union leading up to the permanent injunction. That kind of rhetoric can easily be ignored by most as a normal negotiating tactic. A small minority, however, may take it to heart, get agitated, and run with it. They feel empowered to do what’s necessary. In this case, one person stepped over the line because of his very real concerns about getting a contract. This kind of thing shouldn’t happen, but it only takes one person to go a step too far.
You’d think this would be very bad news for the union, and it could be. If the rank and file realize that union rhetoric encouraged this kind of behavior, it could reduce support for leadership. But let’s be honest… it’s unlikely to have an impact. The injunction is already in place, and the union has been quick to respond to this incident. John Samuelsen, head of the TWU, sent me this statement shortly after the news broke last week.
The Transport Workers Union is shocked by the reported allegations of airplane sabotage by an employee . If these allegations of sabotage are true, they are outrageous and indefensible and we fully condemn such actions. Our mechanics are highly trained professionals who are dedicated to performing at the highest standards in the industry —- and we will not tolerate anything less.
I suppose this can be better judged once we see if the union tries to defend the mechanic’s job or not down the line. But for now, it is saying the right thing, and I don’t expect this will change anything on either side. In other words, this mechanic’s misguided efforts to get closer to a contract were in vain. That doesn’t mean they won’t have an impact elsewhere, however. If anything suffers, it’s the company at large.
American has already pushed away travelers this year (and the year before that, and the year before that…) with poor operational performance. But sabotage? That’s a whole different category of fear. It’s tweets like these that show the real danger.
People are already afraid to fly on a 737 MAX. Now they have to worry about sabotage as well? American is taking steps to try to downplay this and settle nerves both inside the airline and out. It’s unclear, however, how the public will react to the incident.
From a rational perspective, I’d like to believe this mechanic knew what he was doing and was well aware that it would be caught before the airplane ever left the ground. That may, however, be wishful thinking. He may not have thought it through that far. Even if he did, who cares? The average traveler doesn’t know that and never will. More importantly, the average traveler doesn’t care about the nuance. A mechanic sent an airplane out to fly when it wasn’t in a condition to do so. That’s the takeaway that may stick with people.
Looking at the bigger picture, this kind of incident is bad for pretty much everyone involved. It hurts the trust that exists between so many different groups. Travelers lose trust in the airline, employees lose trust in the mechanics, heck, mechanics lose trust in their fellow mechanics, and so on. For American, it’s just one more problem that has the airline on its heels. As United learned a few years ago, the more problems that pile up, the more a truly “big fix” becomes necessary. The hard part is figuring out what that might actually fix American.