American Airlines may be charged over cargo handling

Carrier said to transport hazardous materials that pose danger to passengers

November 07, 1999|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

MIAMI -- Federal charges are expected within days against American Airlines, accusing Miami's No. 1 air carrier of endangering passengers by mishandling hazardous cargo and carrying it illegally on its jets.

It could be the first time in aviation history that a major airline is charged criminally for transporting hazardous materials.

Combustibles, pesticides, corrosives and other substances -- such as cases of flammable perfumes and dangerous hair spray canisters -- are some of the materials that have been loaded improperly, according to federal sources close to the case.

Many of the materials, if stored improperly, can cause either direct damage to the plane or result in dangerous fumes that can overcome passengers and crew.

Attorneys for the airline have been quietly pushing for a settlement with U.S. Attorney Thomas Scott's office in Miami for weeks, but federal authorities say the airline has been criminally negligent and charges against the corporation "are imminent."

"All I can say is that we have been cooperating with federal authorities throughout their two-year investigation, and we will continue to cooperate," said Martha Pantin, spokeswoman for American, the dominant carrier at Miami International Airport.

Citing legal restrictions, she declined to discuss any details of the grand jury investigation. One federal source said American is trying to address many of the problems.

The investigation began in 1997 after an illegally marked, undocumented bag of pesticide broke open in the cargo hold of an American flight to Ecuador, releasing fumes that forced the evacuation of 53 passengers and crew members.

Angel Fuentes, 52 -- president of the cargo company that packaged and managed to slip the 10 50-pound bags of the chemical Dowicide onto the plane undetected -- pleaded guilty to federal charges, agreed to cooperate with federal agents and served a reduced sentence of eight months in prison.

"I'm not excusing him, but Angel is only a tiny, tiny part of this case," said Fuentes' Miami attorney Jeffrey Weiner, who has been involved in his client's cooperation with federal investigators. "His was just one example of a pattern of negligence. People were allowed to put almost anything they wanted on these planes.

"Nobody bothered to check it, nobody bothered to do anything about it. I believe the flying public has been put in danger through the negligence of American and other airlines."

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