Court blames LAPA's top management for 737 crash

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An Argentine court has imposed massive financial penalties on the four top executives of privately owned carrier LAPA, saying they were responsible for the crash on 31 August 1999 of a Boeing 737-200 at Buenos Aires' downtown Aeroparque Jorge Newbery airport, which killed 67 people.

Presiding Judge Literas has ruled that the LAPA executives were responsible for "estrago culposo" - a crime against public safety - and ordered that some $40 million of assets belonging to the airline's president, Gustavo Deutsch, be frozen, local newspaper Clarin reports.

The court, which made its ruling on 23 December, also froze $500,000 of assets belonging to LAPA director general Ronaldo Boyd, together with $100,000-worth of assets of other senior executives of the airline. The executives include operations boss Fabian Chionetti and head of human resources Nora Arzeno.

In addition, the court froze $50,000 of the assets of three members of Argentina's Regional Airspace Command.

The ruling reversed an earlier decision by the Armed Forces, which in Argentina are responsible for civil aviation, that "overall" the crash was down to "human error".

Judge Literas heard testimony from 1,500 people and examined 19,600 pages of evidence, including the recordings obtained from the aircraft's flight recorders. He found that far from being the result of spontaneous human error, the accident was caused by a chain of deficiencies in the Argentine aviation system, says Clarin.

The accident occurred while the LAPA Boeing 737-200 was attempting to take off from Aeroparque Jorge Newbery. It killed the pilot and co-pilot of the aircraft and was found to have resulted from a failure to deploy the 737's flaps for take-off.

However, according to the judge's statement, the LAPA executives showed poor management of safety matters and in the "whole process of selecting personnel". An examination of the aircraft's flight data recorder revealed "the lack of professionalism of the pilots, a situation about which the accused were aware".

Judge Literas' statement continues: "A great number of pilots were in contravention of rules regarding the annual rest period." It points out that prior to the accident flight, Gustavo Weigel, the captain of the aircraft, had only had a short break following 272 days of continuous flying and was owed 2 years in holidays.

He concludes that LAPA had made "irregular" promotions and that its pilots were poorly qualified. Weigel had not attended an obligatory course before flying the Boeing 737, the court heard.

The "estrago culposo" judgment normally carries a sentence of up to five years in prison, but in the LAPA crash case Judge Literas has deemed there to be insufficient evidence according to Article 90 of the Argentine penal code for the charges to lead to imprisonment.