Bolivia minister: country could face US aviation downgrade

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LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — The U.S. could downgrade the country's aviation safety rating because of irregularities that may have contributed to this week's crash of a chartered plane carrying a Brazilian soccer team, Bolivia's Defense Minister said Saturday.

As investigators probe what caused the crash that killed all but six of the 77 people on board, a string of human mistakes and irregularities have emerged, leading experts to conclude that one of the worst disasters in sports history could have been prevented.

Attention has focused on why the British-built regional jet was allowed to attempt the flight between Santa Cruz, Bolivia and the Colombian city of Medellin with barely enough fuel to cover the route. According to a flight plan obtained by Bolivian media, the total flying time was set at 4 hours and 22 minutes — the same amount of time of fuel the aircraft had on board.

"I've never seen a flight plan like this. The fuel on board should never, never match the estimated flight time," said John Cox, a retired airline pilot and CEO of Florida-based Safety Operating Systems, who reviewed the internationally standardized flight plan. "In a lot of countries this flight plan would not have been accepted."

Questions have also been raised about how the charter airline LaMia, which was licensed earlier this year, was able to quickly amass an impressive list of clients from South America's top soccer clubs as well as the national teams of Argentina and Brazil.

One of the airline's owners died in the crash while another, Gustavo Vargas, is a retired air force general who once served as Bolivian President Evo Morales' pilot. On Friday authorities revealed that Vargas' son headed the office responsible for aircraft registration at the civil aviation authority. He was immediately suspended along with several other aviation officials as authorities look into whether LaMia received favorable treatment.

Defense Minister Reymi Ferreri said it was possible Bolivia could be sanctioned with a downgrade by U.S. aviation authorities.

"All the information points to the airplane having crashed because of a lack of fuel, no mechanical errors," Ferreri told journalists from Santa Cruz, where he was on hand to receive the bodies of four members of the aircraft's all-Bolivian crew. "One of the dangers from the investigations are sanctions for civil aviation."

Bolivia in 2001 regained a category 1 rating from the Federal Aviation Administration after having lost the top status in 1994. If the category is downgraded, the South American country would join only a handful of nations including Bangladesh and Thailand deemed as not meeting international aviation standards. Such a move could limit the ability of state-run carrier Boliviana de Aviacion to expand its service to the U.S. The airline currently operates a single flight between Santa Cruz and Miami.

The FAA declined to comment except to say that Bolivia's status had not been changed.

Investigators were being helped in their probe by the six survivors' accounts of what happened. The first of those survivors to be released after the accident, crew member Erwin Tumiri, arrived Saturday in his hometown of Cochabamba in central Bolivia, where an ambulance took him to a local hospital.

Speaking from a stretcher and immobilized by a neck brace, he briefly thanked the many people who prayed for his recovery.

"I'm very happy to have arrived," he said.


Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia.

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