Bolivia’s air safety record isn’t as bad as one might think. The country has only seen 3 fatal crashes in the last 6 years with a total death toll of 19. This is partly due to its small scale aviation industry which stems from the general public’s inability to afford air travel. However, compared to the aviation industries of other developing countries ie Nepal or anywhere in Africa, taking to the skies in Bolivia is a fairly safe bet. Choosing to fly is comparatively even safer when you take into consideration Bolivia’s atrocious road safety record.
What’s not particularly safe is flying on Bolivia’s network of avionetas (light aircraft). These tend to fly in remote areas where there are no major airline services and the poorly maintained roads mean overland travel can take several days. Avionetas are owned by small family run companies and are not subject to the strict safety standards imposed on larger airlines. Earlier in 2014 avionetas were falling from the sky at a rate of one per month.
My girlfriend’s, brother’s, wife’s sister was travelling on one of these death traps with her immediate family when it crashed last month. Miraculously, they survived the crash with only minor injuries and enthusiastically told us about their ordeal.
They were travelling from a small town in Beni to Cochabama on their way home from visiting family. The plane had some sort of mechanical failure so the pilot did his best to bring her in for a crash landing. Fortunately the terrain in that part of Bolivia is very flat and the plane skidded along the ground for a few hundred metres. Just as it was grinding to a halt the nose must have dug into the ground because the whole thing flipped over. The passengers climbed out of the wreckage and assessed their injuries. After a quick search it became apparent there was no first aid kit on board. The pilot apologised and explained that they sold it last month.
Beni is in the lowlands so extremely hot during the day. There was no water on board other than a half empty plastic bottle one of the passengers was carrying. They rummaged through the planes cargo to see what they could salvage and found a huge amount of uncooked empanadas (pastries) and various tropical fruits. At least the fruits could offer some hydration. To escape the scorching midday sun they ripped out the planes chairs and used them to build a shelter. The pilot reckoned the nearest town was a good 40km away; a 10 hour walk in the sweltering heat without any water. He also wasn’t really sure in which direction. He managed to put through a mayday before crashing so they made the sensible decision to stay put and wait for rescue. There was no cell phone coverage so their fate was in the hands of the local search and rescue team.
The rescue response was amazingly efficient, just 3 hours later a helicopter arrived. I suppose they probably have a fair bit of practice at this sort of thing. They couldn’t fit everyone on board the chopper so they had to come back and collect the others later.
I searched extensively through all the Bolivian newspapers and couldn’t find a single reference to this incident. I can only assume it happens so often that it’s not newsworthy unless someone dies.
If you’d like to read about a more extreme example of air crash survival in Bolivia take a look at this article.
BoA, Amaszonas and TAM (a military airline that sells airfares to subsidise their operating costs) are the three major carriers in Bolivia. They all have pretty good reputations and domestic fares a reasonable $50-$150.