Minutes before Brazilian soccer team Chapecoense took off for Colombia last Monday, an airport official warned Lamia airlines that the plane didn't have enough fuel to make it to Medellin International Airport. She was probably right. The plane crashed, killing 71 people.
So why did Lamia´s flight takeoff after the charter airline had been warned that it was trying to undertake a route that was too long for its plane?
That's the question investigators are looking into now. Here's what we know so far.
The fateful warning was made by Celia Castedo, an official with the Bolivian Airport Management Authority (AASANA) who revises flight plans for aircraft departing the Viru Viru Airport in Santa Cruz Bolivia. Castedo makes recommendations and provides pilots with weather reports, but does not have the authority to ground planes over dubious flight plans.
In a memo written to her superiors on Monday, Castedo notes that the Lamia plane's flight plan said the flight would take 4 hours 22 minutes from Santa Cruz, Bolivia to Medellin, which happens to be the exact maximum distance the RJ-85 plane can go without refueling, according to the airline´s own accounts. That left the plane with no wiggle room for emergencies or even a slight mid-flight rerouting for bad weather or air traffic. It's also a direct violation of international protocols and basic airline safety.
Castedo's memo and the airline's flight plan were revealed Thursday by Bolivian daily El Deber.
In the memo Castedo says she told a Lamia airline dispatcher to devise a new, safer flight plan before the plane was given clearance to depart. But she says her advice was ignored by the charter airline.
“After I made these observations, I asked him to bring me a new flight plan,” Castedo writes in the memo. “He came back to pick up the (weather) info for the flight thirty minutes later and told me everything would be the same and there would be no change in the flight plan. I demonstrated my disapproval with his response and told him that many times airline dispatchers don’t take our observations seriously.”
The Bolivian government is investigating who gave final authorization for takeoff.
AASANA, the agency that Castedo works for, said it does not give final clearance. That is the role of Bolivia's Civil Aviation agency.
According to Jaime Hernandez, president of Colombia's Civil Aviators Association, the whole incident shows how flight safety is deteriorating in some parts of the world as airlines try to desperately reduce costs.
“That accident happened at Lamia airline's offices,” Hernandez told Fusion. “The information we have from the memo suggests that the company had made a habit of pushing its plane to the limit.”
Previously, Lamia had flown the same route with its RJ 85 plane that crashed on Monday, on a single tank of fuel, only departing from Medellin and arriving in Bolivia.
Flight records stored on flightradar24.com show that the charter plane completed a direct flight from Medellin to Santa Cruz on Aug. 22, but took 4 hours and 28 minutes— a full six minutes longer than the maximum designed flight range listed for the plane by the airline.
Lamia's general manager, Gustavo Vargas, said he could not rule out “the theory” that his airline's plane ran out of fuel in the air. He added, however, that the plane was supposed to make a refueling stop halfway, which it did not for reasons that are still unclear. The flight plan presented to Bolivian authorities prior to departure was for a non-stop flight to Medellin.
Hernandez, himself a pilot for Colombia´s Avianca, said Lamia is not the only airline making risky decisions to cut down on costs. He said that in his home country some airlines no longer provide full pay for sick days, which has reportedly increased the number of pilots flying while they are sick. Other airlines give pilots incentives for saving fuel on flights, which could potentially affect safety.
“There is a war for profits that is changing how aviation works,” Hernandez said.
According to Hernandez, it's important for civil aviation regulators around the world to stay vigilant and pressure airlines to stick to international safety protocols to avoid dangerous cost-cutting efforts.
“There are civil aviation authorities that are not properly monitoring airlines,” Hernandez said. “So we also depend on the airlines honesty and transparency.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.