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Last modified: 05:23 PM CDT on Tuesday, June 25, 2002
Shoe-bomb flight conduct criticized

06/13/2002

By JIM MORRIS / The Dallas Morning News

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 retaliation.

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 discrimination.

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.

Detailed account

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 followed.

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 happen."

About 15 minutes later, Ms. Robichaux said, the pilot informed her that passenger Richard Reid's shoes appeared to contain "some kind of pyrotechnic device."

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 agencies."

NORAD contact

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.

Tapes erased

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 27.

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 flight attendant."

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."

E-mail jmorris@dallasnews.com

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