By Oliver Smith
Seventy-one passengers were killed Monday night in an airplane crash near Medellin, Colombia, including most of the members of a Brazilian football team on their way to a championship match. Authorities report that six survived the crash and are in serious condition at a nearby hospital.
The British Aerospace 146 jet, operated by a little-known Bolivian airline, LAMIA, declared an emergency at 10 p.m. Monday following an electrical failure.
South America has seen a number of high profile air disasters over the years. According to Flight Safety Foundation, Colombia’s national airline, Avianca, was involved in 10 fatal incidents between 1985 and 1999 resulting in the deaths of 1,043 people. The most infamous was the bombing of Flight 203 from Bogotá to Cali in 1989, masterminded by drug cartel boss Pablo Escobar, in which 110 passengers and crew were killed. Just two months later 72 people died when Avianca Flight 52, en route from Bogotá to New York City, crashed in Cove Neck, New York, after running out of fuel.
This week’s accident is also reminiscent of the 1972 Andes flight disaster, in which a chartered flight carrying 45 passengers, including a rugby union team, crashed in a remote region of Argentina. The 16 survivors were rescued more than two months after the crash and their story was told in the 1993 film Alive.
Air safety standards in South America have improved dramatically, however, and are now on a par with those found in Europe. Avianca, for example, has not been involved in a single incident since 1999 – despite flying as many as 28 million passengers a year.
Each year the European Union publishes a list of airlines that are banned from its airspace due to concerns over safety standards. The vast majority are currently found in sub-Saharan Africa and it doesn’t contain a single South American airline.
The websitejudges South America’s largest carriers to be among the safest in the world. LAN, based in Chile, Gol Transportes Aéreos and Azul Linhas Aereas (both Brazil), Avianca, and Aerolíneas Argentinas (Argentina), the continent’s five biggest in terms of passengers carried, each have the maximum safety rating of seven stars.
While less is known about LAMIA, the Bolivian airline involved in this week’s crash, it is subject to the same safety standards as its larger rivals.
Many travellers will also be unfamiliar with the type of aircraft involved, a BAE 146. But flight records show the very plane that crashed on Monday night was being flown by Dublin-based airline CityJet, a subsidiary of Air France-KLM, as recently as 2011. The model has a good safety record and are often used for short-haul services to hard-to-access airports thanks to their ability to handle steep approaches and short runways. The 146 was introduced in 1981; production ended in 2003 for economic reasons. The most recent crash involving a 146 – operated by Indonesian airline Aviastar Mandiri, in which six people were killed – was in 2009.
Chris Moss, Telegraph Travel’s South America expert, said he has taken “hundreds” of internal flights there and couldn’t see any evidence that safety standards are any lower than in the West.
“Weather sometimes makes flights feel edgy – pilots have to take off in stormy conditions – and Andean regions, like the area where Medellin sits, can look tricky from the air,” he added. “But these are just inexpert impressions.”
Patrick Smith, a US pilot and author of the book Cockpit Confidential, argues that – even in regions with bad reputations, such as sub-Saharan Africa – there is no such thing as a “dangerous” airline.
“Some are safer than others, but even the least safe airline is still very safe,” he says. “And in certain regions I’d be more comfortable with a local carrier that knows its territory and the quirks of flying there. One example I love to cite is Bolivia’s LAB – Lloyd Aereo Boliviano – the former national airline of the poorest country in South America. LAB is gone now, but from 1925 through 2008 it plied the treacherous peaks of the Andes in and out of La Paz, the planet’s most highly situated commercial airport. Since 1969, LAB suffered only two fatal crashes on scheduled passenger runs, killing a total of 36 people.
This was not a mainstay airline making thousands of daily flights, but two crashes in thirty-four years amid jagged mountains and hazards of the high Altiplano was exemplary.”
Credit: The Telegraph, www.telegraph.co.uk