WASHINGTON – The American Airlines dispatcher who helped guide the flight
carrying a suspected shoe-bomber to a safe landing in December alleged in
a whistle-blower complaint Wednesday that airline supervisors interfered
with her during the incident and threatened her afterward.
In a complaint filed with the director of the Federal Aviation
Administration's Whistleblower Protection Program, Julie Robichaux, a
12-year American employee, said she was subjected to "intimidation,
threats and disciplinary action" after criticizing the airline's
handling of Flight 63 on Dec. 22.
The Paris-to-Miami flight was diverted to Boston after a passenger
attempted to ignite explosives in his shoes, authorities said.
Ms. Robichaux, 37, said in an interview that she first sought to resolve
her dispute with management internally and that her decision to formally
lodge the allegations against American was a difficult one. However, she
said, "I felt like I had to do it to protect myself" from further
American said the complaint is without merit.
The FAA will investigate aviation safety aspects of Ms. Robichaux's
complaint, spokesman Les Dorr said, and the U.S. Department of Labor
will investigate allegations that the airline discriminated against her
for raising safety concerns.
The FAA could fine or take administrative action against American if it
finds any violations of safety regulations, Mr. Dorr said. It also could
fine the airline if the Labor Department finds evidence of
An FAA-licensed dispatcher such as Ms. Robichaux has responsibility,
along with airline captains, for preflight planning, delays and gate
releases. Once a flight is in the air, the dispatcher must monitor its
progress, relay safety information to the captain and, if necessary,
cancel or redispatch the flight.
In the complaint, Ms. Robichaux offers a detailed account of the last 3 ½
hours of Flight 63 – and American managers' actions in the months that
The complaint states that Ms. Robichaux was first alerted to a
"passenger misconduct situation" by the flight's captain, Hans Mantel,
at about 9 a.m. Dallas time on Dec. 22. She and Mr. Mantel agreed that
the flight would divert to Boston.
Ms. Robichaux said she asked Jack Helmbrecht, an international sector
manager, for help and was assured she would get it "if anything should
About 15 minutes later, Ms. Robichaux said, the pilot informed her that
passenger Richard Reid's shoes appeared to contain "some kind of
Ms. Robichaux said she told Mr. Helmbrecht about the shoes, but he told
her not to inform authorities "because the flight would be remotely
parked [in Boston] and 'it would be forever before we could get the
plane out of there.' "
Ms. Robichaux said she "strongly believed that this would be
inappropriate" and disregarded Mr. Helmbrecht's instructions.
American spokesman Steve Tankel responded: "It is not the job of the
dispatcher to communicate with the authorities. The manager on duty
notified the state police and was also in contact with other government
Ms. Robichaux said she spent the next two hours relaying information
between Mr. Mantel and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or
NORAD, the military agency that protects U.S. airspace. But at one point,
she said, Frank Bottie, a manager at American's Systems Operational
Control Center in Fort Worth, disrupted the flow of information by
speaking directly to the captain.
Mr. Bottie later ordered her to get off the phone with NORAD, Ms.
Robichaux said, emphasizing that she had other flights to monitor. At
the time, she said, she was responsible for at least 23 planes in the
air, with five more set to depart.
Mr. Bottie spoke to NORAD, then transferred the call to Mr. Helmbrecht,
according to the complaint. Ms. Robichaux said she believed this "was
not the most prudent action, as I now had to go through an intermediary
party to coordinate information between Captain Mantel and NORAD.
"In fact, Captain Mantel was very concerned that the fighters under the
control of NORAD could misinterpret his intentions and shoot down
[Flight] 63 as it approached Boston."
Mr. Tankel said that "all security issues and events" are coordinated by
the manager of the Systems Operational Control Center.
"The center manager is supposed to be the one communicating with
government agencies in an event like this one, so that the dispatcher
can continue to communicate with the aircraft," he said.
Flight 63 landed in Boston at about 12:30 p.m. Dallas time on Dec. 22,
and Mr. Reid was arrested. The next day, Ms. Robichaux filed an internal
complaint under American's Aviation Safety Action Program, alleging that
managers had interfered with her during the incident.
On Jan. 3, Ms. Robichaux participated in a videotaped debriefing session
organized by the American pilots' union, the Allied Pilots Association.
On Jan. 30, Ms. Robichaux said, the team that investigated her internal
complaint – comprised of representatives of American, the FAA and the
Transport Workers Union to which she belongs – said in a report that
there was a "difference in perception" between Ms. Robichaux and her
supervisors about what transpired during Flight 63.
The team said it reached that conclusion after listening to tapes of the
communications and conversations that took place during the event. When
Ms. Robichaux asked to listen to the tapes in March, she was told that
they had been erased.
Mr. Tankel said the airline is only required to keep tapes for 31 days.
Ms. Robichaux's complaint also alleges that American retaliated against
her after she alerted flight crews to potential security threats on May
That day, she said, she learned of suspicious passengers on two
Zurich-bound American flights, one from Dallasand the other from New
York. On the first, six passengers traveling with Indian passports "were
overheard discussing the synchronization of their watches"; on the
second, "a passenger traveling with a passport from Pakistan would not
turn off his computer after being told to do so several times by a
Ms. Robichaux sent an electronic "heads up" about these developments to
flight crews under her control. When Danny Burgin, a manager at the
Systems Operational Control Center, learned what she had done, he
convened a formal "counseling" session, she said.
Mr. Burgin informed her during the session that "security is not part of
my job scope" and that her notification of the crews was inappropriate,
Ms. Robichaux said.
She said she was warned that if she ever did such a thing again, a
"first advisory letter" would be placed in her personnel file. This, she
said, would be the first step in a disciplinary process that could lead
to her termination.
Mr. Tankel responded that the center's manager "is the person to
determine what security information is disseminated. The [managers] err
on the side of caution and, if there is a question, will disseminate
that information. That policy was reinforced on May 6, and Ms.
Robichaux's actions on May 27 were in violation of this policy."