ALTA: Latin America's airlines continue safety journey

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The annual number of fatal accidents involving Latin American commercial passenger airliners has been on a steady downward trend ever since the 1940s, the Flightglobal Ascend Online database reveals. This is, however, a misleadingly rosy picture because the accident rates do not compare with those in Western Europe or North America.

In accident rate terms there is also a downward slope, but Latin America is still behind the world average safety performance and does not even approach the rates achieved in North America and Western Europe, showing more than twice their rate. And there are no signs that the gap is closing.

Indeed, Ascend figures show that since the 1970s North American commercial airline jet safety has improved by a factor of 14 as judged by the fatal accident rate, and EU/European Free Trade Association airlines by a factor of 12, while Latin American airline safety has improved only by a factor of 2.2.

By mid-October this year there had been no fatal jet accidents in Latin America, but there had been three fatal accidents involving veteran turboprop cargo operators. Among Latin American countries in the past 10 years, Colombia has seen the largest number of fatal accidents, with nine involving turboprops and four involving jets. Brazil and Venezuela are close behind with, respectively, nine turboprops and two jets, and 10 turboprops and one jet.

At the other end of the scale among the larger Latin American countries, Argentina and Chile have lost no jets in the past 10 years, but both have lost a pair of turboprops, and Mexico lost one of each category. These figures are notably better than those for the previous decade.

Among the reasons for Latin America's imperfect safety record are infrastructural factors. Partly as a result of a history of military participation in many governments in Latin American countries, national air traffic control and some ostensibly civilian air transport services have been carried out wholly or partly by the military. This is now a declining factor, but particularly in ATC the influence survives.

Brazilian casualties of the military culture in a civil environment, arguably, are the victims of the 2006 mid-air collision between a Gol Boeing 737-800 and an Embraer Legacy business jet on its delivery flight. They were allocated the same flight level in opposite directions on the same airway, and although the Legacy survived badly damaged, the 737 crashed with the loss of all 154 people on board.

Also a casualty of an infrastructural issue was the fatal runway overrun of a TAM Airbus A320 in which 187 people on board and 12 on the ground died when the aircraft shot off the end of the downtown São Paulo Congonhas runway, which had virtually no stopping area before a steep drop into the city's streets. There were other factors involved, including the crew's poor management of the aircraft's controls during the touchdown and ground-run, but the airport design did not help.

There are reasons to be more optimistic for Latin America's future aviation safety as older turboprops and piston engine aircraft gradually retire from service, especially in the cargo sector, and latest-­generation jets arrive.