Peru has become the first Latin American country to regain Category I status for safety oversight from Washington, but officials in the region are wary over claims that the US Federal Aviation Administration will upgrade other Latin American countries still on the 'black list.'

'This as not at all a sign for optimism in other parts of Latin America,' warns Ernesto Vasquez Rocha, executive director of AITAL, the association of Latin American international airlines. 'The FAA's action is specific to each country.' The general consensus is that the Peruvian authorities had one of the easiest jobs to regain the rating because they have only one international operator: AeroPeru.

Immediately after the FAA's decision, AeroPeru indicated it would nearly double its US frequencies, which have been frozen since the FAA downgraded the country to Category II two years ago. In the five years preceding that downgrade, US airlines had increased their share of Peru-US traffic from 47 to 56 per cent - a trend that accelerated while Peru's frequencies were frozen. American, Continental, and United Airlines operate 42 weekly US-Peru frequencies compared to AeroPeru's nine.

The US-imposed restrictions added to the existing problems of Peru's carriers. After the freeze, Faucett Airlines, the 70-year-old flag carrier, suspended international flights and shrank its fleet to two aircraft for use on domestic services. AeroPeru in turn moved to fill the international vacuum by shifting more flights overseas, while another domestic airline, Americana, ceased operations this year. The aggressive AeroContinente moved to fill this gap and now carries close to 40 per cent of domestic passengers, twice the share of its nearest rival.

In the months preceding the FAA's decision, Peru's civil aviation authorities underwent internal restructuring and revised its safety regulations with the assistance of Chilean advisers. Local officials also grounded AeroContinente for 15 days over alleged safety breaches. At the same time they threatened to ground Faucett unless it paid a hefty fine stemming from a crash of a B737-200 in February 1996.

Lima's grounding of its leading domestic airline and the threat to ground its oldest international carrier would not have gone unnoticed in Washington. Peru's return to Category I plus a resurgence in traffic, which had faltered in line with Peru's economy, could provide a shot in the arm for its airlines.

AeroContinente, which has already explored the possibility of buying Faucett, is restive. Even before the FAA's decision it was proposing flights to Tokyo via Honolulu for the large Japanese community in Peru. Now AeroContinente wants to take over some of the 10 weekly US frequencies Faucett controls. But that will not come without a fight, since Faucett was planning to launch six weekly Miami flights with leased L.1011s in mid-August.

Other moves are afoot. Daniel Ratti, a Peruvian and former head of US carrier Carnival Airlines, hopes to launch a domestic airline named Transam in Peru. And sources say Lima may even be interested in signing an open skies deal with the US.

Even though the FAA's decision on Peru is not necessarily a sign that the FAA will upgrade the remaining 11 Latin American countries still rated Category II or below, there are reports that US inspectors plan early visits to Bolivia and Colombia. Aviation officials in both countries are optimistic about a prompt return to Category I.

David Knibb

Source: Airline Business