13 Dec Lamia crash: a reminder on everyone’s role in flight safety
Bolivian charter flight LaMia 2399 crashed short of the runway in Colombia on 28 November, turning a Brazilian underdog dream of a football championship into tragedy as 71 players, journalists and crew died. For the aviation industry, the crash has prompted discussion about flight safety regulation. As it unfolds, this story is revealing the important role that everyone plays in aviation safety.
Keeping air travel safe
Given the tragedy, it is no surprise that speculation and accusations are rife. Although investigators quickly recovered the flight recorders, a thorough investigation will take time. Meanwhile, accounts of what happened (infographic in Spanish) have created a veritable soap opera of scenarios including death threats and accusations of negligence, corruption and conflicts of interest.
If the flight plan and ATC recordings leaked to the media are authentic, fuel exhaustion seems a likely cause. If so, it only serves to magnify the importance of flight safety regulations, guidelines and procedures in saving lives and keeping air travel one of the safest forms of transportation. And it reveals, sadly, a wholly avoidable accident.
An avoidable accident?
An air traffic controller reportedly noticed the flight plan from Santa Cruz to Rionegro matched exactly the Avro RJ85’s fuel endurance (maximum flight time), but LaMia’s dispatcher declined to adjust it. If he had planned for refuelling, the plane could have taken on sufficient fuel for holding, diversion and emergencies. The pilot, being a co-owner, may have, overconfidently, pushed to the endurance limit to minimize costs.
Although ATC does not normally approve or reject this type of information on flight plans, charges of criminal negligence (paywall) have since been filed against the controller in Bolivia, claiming she should not have allowed the plane to depart.
Later options for refuelling were also missed. A passenger reportedly delayed take-off to retrieve a videogame from the baggage compartment. Because of the delay, airports en route that might have been available had already closed for the night.
At Rionegro, the pilot agreed to hold while another flight reporting technical difficulties received landing priority. He reportedly mentioned having low fuel but never declared an emergency. If he had, he could have started his approach first and probably landed in time.
Missed oppertunities, lessons to learn
If these reports are accurate, the crash could have been avoided by following aviation safety guidelines. Questions have also been raised about a relative at the aviation authority possibly pushing LaMia’s licence through the system without proper checks and controls. Ultimately, everyone has a role to play in aviation safety, and opportunities to create a different outcome were certainly missed.
Oversight through internal safety checks as well as external aviation authority audits could have detected the alleged failures and offenses. Being a small charter airline did not exempt LaMia from following proper aviation safety procedures.
Although not every tragedy is avoidable, the story now surrounding this one is a grave reminder of why we have aviation safety regulations. That said, it would still be wise for the aviation industry and regulators to act prudently to avoid a flurry of regulations requiring all sorts of extra steps to declare, review and approve flight endurance times and distances.
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