Bolivia’s air safety record isn’t as bad as one might think. The country has only seen three fatal crashes in the last six years with a total death toll of 19, which is partly thanks to its small scale aviation industry that stems from the general public’s inability to afford air travel.
However, compared to the aviation industries of other developing countries (i.e. Nepal or anywhere in Africa), taking to the skies in Bolivia is a fairly safe bet. Choosing to fly is even more sensible when you take Bolivia’s atrocious bus safety record into consideration.
What’s not particularly safe is flying on Bolivia’s network of avionetas (light aircraft), which 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.
A Bolivian crash story
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 meters. Just as it was grinding to a halt, the nose must have dug into the ground because the whole thing flipped over.
Once the plane had come to a stop, 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 apologized and explained that they had sold it last month.
Beni is in the lowlands which means it’s extremely hot during the day. There was no water on board other than a half empty plastic bottle one of the passengers was carrying. After rummaging though the planes cargo to see what they could salvage, they uncovered some uncooked empanadas and a bunch of tropical fruits, which could at least 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, which translates to a 10 hour walk in the sweltering heat without any water, and without any definite sense of direction.
He did manage to put through a mayday before crashing so they made the sensible decision to stay put and wait for rescue. Without any cellphone reception, their fate was in the hands of the local search and rescue team.
Thankfully, the rescue response was amazingly efficient and just three hours later a helicopter arrived. I suppose they probably have a fair bit of practice at this sort of thing. Not everyone could fit on the small chopper so some had to wait for a second pickup.
I searched extensively through all the Bolivian newspapers and couldn’t find a single reference to this incident. This can only lead me to assume it happens so often that it’s not even 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 subsidize their operating costs) are the three major carriers in Bolivia, which all have pretty good reputations and domestic fares a reasonable $50-$150. They fly much larger, safer aircraft.