It is appearing increasingly likely that the plane crash in Colombia that killed 71 of its 77 passengers, including most of the Brazilian soccer team Chapecoense, happened because of an act of negligence. Supporting this growing realization is the fact that the CEO of the airline was arrested last night.
The LaMia airline company that owned and operated the plane that crashed a few miles outside its destination of Medellín about a week ago has been under investigation in Bolivia, where the company is domiciled, to determine whether the airline’s possible contributions to the crash may have been criminal. Bolivian authorities arrested a few LaMia employees yesterday, including CEO Gustavo Vargas, and interviewed them for up to eight hours about whether the airline followed proper safety procedures. As the attorney general later put it, “It could easily turn into a manslaughter case.”
Initially, the crash was suspected to have been the fault of an electrical failure, though one of the survivors—a flight attendant—did claim that the plane had run out of fuel. Further investigation has indicated that the fuel problem was probably ultimately responsible for the disaster, which raises questions about the pilot’s and the airline’s negligence.
The pilot himself, in a leaked audio recording of his final conversations with the air traffic controller as he tried to get authorization for an emergency landing, cited a fuel problem as the reason for his requested priority landing. The recording, in which the pilot grows increasingly frantic (though the question then arises: why didn’t he make clear the dire nature of his flight earlier?), is harrowing:
The most pressing question in determining who if anyone was at fault here is why the plane ran out of fuel in the first place. And as the evidence piles up, it’s looking likely that fault for for that lies with the airline.
LaMia’s website (which has been taken down since the crash) described the plane’s fuel reserves as capable of a 1,600 mile flight, or roughly four hours and 22 minutes of air time. That’s practically identical to the route from Bolivia to Colombia that the fateful flight was on, leaving no room for any delay. Here’s how one expert described the route:
John Cox, a retired pilot and head of the US-based Safety Operating Systems, said: “The airplane was being flight-planned right to its maximum. Even if everything goes well they are not going to have a large amount of fuel when they arrive. I don’t understand how they could do the flight nonstop with the fuel requirements that the regulations stipulate.”
The regulation Cox alludes to is that all flights are required to have 30 to 45 minutes worth of fuel on top of the amount their expected route will need, to prepare for an emergency keeping them in the air longer than predicted. Not only did the plane barely have enough fuel to make the trip safely in the best of circumstances, but the pilot also reportedly decided against making a scheduled refueling stop somewhere mid-flight.
It doesn’t end there. The pilot of the crashed plane, Miguel Quiroga, was also one of the owners of the airline. This has led those paying attention to this case to wonder if the choices he and LaMia made—to fly in a straight shot even though it violated aviation regulations, to shrug off the planned refueling stop, even Quiroga’s failure to adequately impress upon the air traffic controller the severity of the situation until the very last minute—arose because of financial concerns and the desire not to arouse any unwanted attention.
And indeed, this was not the first time LaMia has run afoul of these fuel regulations. Much was made of the fact that just a few weeks before the November 28 crash, that very same LaMia plane had flown the Argentina national team, with international superstars like Lionel Messi and Ángel Di María on board, back home to Argentina after a World Cup qualifying match in Brazil. Just yesterday, Brazilian paper Folha de São Paulo reported that that flight was also under-fueled.
The aforementioned trip from Brazil to Argentina ended up taking four hours and four minutes. Going by the information on LaMia’s site about their plane, the aircraft in question only had a fuel capacity to fly for four hours and 22 minutes. Thus that flight only had 18 extra minutes to spare in terms of fuel, less than the 30-45 minutes the regulations stipulate. In addition, Folha found two other occasions where the LaMia plane’s actual flight time exceeded the plane’s limits.
Folha spoke to someone in the Argentine soccer federation who told them that the federation had not heard of LaMia—a very small company that does business almost exclusively with soccer teams in South America—but decided to select them from a list of bidders when their regular airline’s plane was undergoing maintenance. Of the bids the federation received to fly the team, LaMia’s price was the cheapest.
Meanwhile, Celia Castedo, an air traffic controller who worked at the airport from which the fateful flight originated in Bolivia has fled her country for Brazil seeking asylum. Castedo told Brazilian authorities that she had concerns about the plane’s scheduled flight path but her warnings were not abided, and she now believes that she might face punishment for speaking out. Bolivian authorities, however, are demanding that Castedo be returned to Bolivia, since they claim the woman fled to escape the law, as she is sought by Bolivian authorities to surmise if she was negligent in allowing the plane to fly.
Somehow, all of this is just getting worse.