Yesterday a Santa Barbara Airlines domestic flight crashed en route from Merida to Caracas in Venezuela. It spurred me to do a little investigation into airline safety records of South American carriers. Here’s what I discovered.
The United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has released a report that focuses on a country’s ability to meet international standards for aircraft operations and maintenance. The report does not focus on airlines, merely a country’s ability to meet a suitably high standard on airline safety issues. The report, see here for a link, identifies the following Latin American countries as not being able to meet these standards: Belize, Guyana, Honduras, Haiti, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Uruguay. Note that Cuba was not included in their evaluation. I personally take this report with a large pinch of salt.
Here is some data on the number of aircraft crashes for the period 1970 to September 2007, as advised by Airsafe.com (though I’m not convnced that this information is completely up to date). When “crashes” are mentioned in this list it refers to crashes that lead to fatalities (therefore skidding off a runway but everyone survives wouldn’t be included):
Aerolineas Argentinas: 1.67 million flights, 2 crashes, latest in 1992.
Aeromexico: 2.16 million flights, 4 crashes, latest in 1986.
AeroPeru: 0.12 million flights, 2 crashes, latest in 1996 (Poor record).
Air Jamaica: 0.29 million flights, 0 crashes.
Avianca: 1.27 million flights, 4 crashes, latest in 1990.
BWIA West Indies Airways: 0.45 million flights, 0 crashes.
Cubana: 0.33 million flights, 8 crashes, latest in 1992. (Note: Cubana airlines have a higher than normal percentage of crashes on domestic routings not because of the planes themselves, but because all domestic flights are loaded with small amounts of fuel. This is because the government wants to prevent highjackings by people who want to leave the country. Basically, not enough fuel is loaded for a domestic flight to reach any other country. As such, flights sometimes run out of fuel if they encounter bad weather and need to turn around. The UK FCO office advises against taking domestic flights in Cuba, but you should take this advice with a pinch of salt).
Lan Chile: 0.5 million flights, 2 crashes, latest in 1991.
Mexicana: 1.9 million flights,1 crash, in 1986.
Taca: 0.25 million flights, 0 crashes.
Tranbrasil: 0.85 million flights, 2 crashes, latest in 1980.
Tam: 0.6 million flights, 6 crashes, latest in 2001 (a remarkably poor record) ( data is according to the website, but I know that there was a Tam crash in 2007).
Tame (Ecuador): 0.69 million flighs, 2 crashes, latest in 2002.
Varig: 2.45 million flights, 3 crashes, latest in 1989.
This same website points out that the following Latin American airlines have not had any fatal incidents: Aerocalifornia; Aero Continente; Aero Continente Chile; Aerolineas Internacionales; Aerorepublica; Allegro Air; Air Jamaica; American Falcon; Aserca; Azteca; Bahamasair; BWIA; Cayman Airways; Dinar Lineas Aereas; Ecuatoriana; Linhas Aereas; Lacsa; Ladeco; Lan Peru; Laser; Pluna; Rio Sol; Southern Winds; and Taca. In all honesty I haven’t even heard of a few of these domestic airlines. I’m also sceptical about the conclusiveness of this information, as I can see no mention whatsoever of certain airlines on the website Airsafe.com. There was a Tam crash in July 2007 at Sao Paulo domestic airport, and this seems not to be included it the websites data.
Another fascinating (much better) resource is aviation-safety.net, where you can search by countries and subsequently airlines to see the number of “incidents” (highjackings, crashes, rebels burning planes etc.) that have occurred over the last decades. There’s far too much detail for me to possibly summarize here. The site even advises what happened in each incident - one rather funny one I read was about a man in a wheelchair who hijacked a domestic Aires (Colombia) flight in 2005 along with his son as his social security benefit application has been turned down by the government!
Don’t get paranoid by all this data. Also remember that Latin America (and Colombia in particular) has some of the worlds most appauling car and lorry drivers - you’re far more likely to have a vehicle accident than a plane crash, so almost always it’s safest to fly!