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Fasten your seat belts

Following the announcement of a new program to improve flight safety in Central America (see adjacent press release), it seems fair to ask: Is it dangerous to fly in Latin America?

The answer, of course, is no. Regardless of how they feel during takeoff, most people know that airplanes everywhere are statistically much safer than cars, trains, or any other major mode of transportation.

What is generally not known is that aircraft accidents, while extremely rare, are much more frequent in some parts of the world than in others. And in Latin America and the Caribbean, unfortunately, such accidents are significantly more frequent. According to records maintained by Boeing Co., between 1988 and 1997 this region accounted for 8 percent of the world’s aircraft departures—and 26 percent of all accidents. By contrast, the United States and Canada accounted for 50 percent of all departures but only 18 percent of the accidents during the same period.

The difference in safety is even more alarming when measured as the number of fatalities divided by the total number of miles flown by passengers. In the countries of Central America, for example, this so-called air transport accident rate is 120 times higher than in the United States.

Although the causes of individual aircraft accidents are famously difficult to determine, aviation experts believe these disproportionately high accident rates indicate widespread deficiencies in areas such as maintenance, training and regulatory oversight. But since aircraft accidents tend to be perceived as isolated events, these deficiencies have not received much attention from either governments or the media. Indeed, despite the grisly television coverage that often follows accidents, the volume and frequency of air travel has been growing steadily in Latin America.

The hidden costs of poor oversight. There are good reasons to do something about improving air safety, however. In addition to preventing the needless loss of life, better safety standards could remove the single biggest obstacle to the growth of Latin America’s own airlines, and to the expanded tourism and trade that such growth could facilitate.

Safety problems have become a growth constraint because both governments and commercial air carriers are increasingly reluctant to send their own aircraft to countries with poor safety records or accept flights from such countries. The United States, which is by far the most important foreign destination for Latin American and Caribbean carriers, has recently begun to deny requests for additional scheduled flights from countries that do not meet ICAO safety standards. As of August 2000, a total of 12 Latin American and Caribbean countries were no longer permitted to add new flights to the U.S. for this reason (see link at right). These restrictions have resulted in a very significant loss of potential revenue and market share for the region’s air carriers–at a time of unprecedented growth in air traffic between Latin America and the U.S.

The story behind the new U.S. policy, which affects numerous carriers from other regions as well, began at the Convention on International Civil Aviation, held in Chicago in 1944. By then it was clear that in order for international air travel to continue expanding, people would demand some sort of guarantee that basic safety standards were being enforced wherever they might go. To that end national delegates in Chicago agreed to enforce a series of detailed safety standards within their own territories. They also created the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and charged it with updating annexes to the convention which spell out safety standards for everything from pilot training to runway lighting.

For the next 50 years, the Chicago convention was an enormous success. The universal adoption of ICAO’s safety standards was crucial to making air travel the world’s safest form of transportation. By inspiring confidence about safety in other countries, the convention enabled the explosive growth of international air travel that is now indispensable to the global economy. The convention was so successful, in fact, that few people ever bothered to ask whether or how it was actually enforced.

Simply put, the Chicago convention worked on an honor system—countries were assumed to be doing their part to uphold ICAO’s safety standards, but no one actually conducted independent audits to make sure that was the case.

ICAO demands proof positive. Unfortunately, as the volume and frequency of international air travel grew to previously unimagined levels, ICAO’s honor system gradually came under strain. In the early 1990s, the rapidly expanding global economy produced a surge in the number of flights from developing countries to highly congested airports in cities like New York, London and Tokyo. After a few well-publicized accidents caused by Latin American aircraft on U.S. soil, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began openly expressing its concern that ICAO’s standards were not being enforced in many countries. In 1992, the FAA began conducting its own audits of civil aviation authorities around the world, and it eventually published the results.

By then the issues of enforcement and outside safety audits were also being discussed among ICAO’s 183 member countries. Although mandatory audits were initially resisted by many countries as an infringement on their national sovereignty, concern over safety gradually prevailed. In 1996 ICAO members approved the launch of a voluntary Safety Oversight Assessment Programme that would conduct independent safety audits in the areas of personnel licensing and training, the operation of aircraft, and airworthiness (The Chicago Convention annexes cover numerous aspects of safety in addition to these.) This program, like the FAA’s, found widespread shortcomings in countries’ ability to maintain ICAO’s minimum safety standards. Inadequate or nonexistent regulatory legislation, a shortage of experienced airworthiness inspectors, the absence of systems for properly certifying pilots and poorly trained flight attendants were but a few of the problems that cropped up during the audits.

Alarm over these findings led ICAO’s members to approve a mandatory audit program that, starting in 1999, subjects each country to periodic inspections. Unlike the earlier, voluntary audits, summaries of the results of the mandatory ones will be made public.

What these developments mean, in short, is that countries can no longer avoid scrutiny. As more information about the state of air safety becomes available, countries with shortcomings could find it harder to attract tourists and investors in industries where air transport is crucial. They could also incur higher costs related to accident insurance. Joan Bauerlein, a former FAA safety expert who now works for the IDB and is serving as project team leader for the MIF-financed program in Central America, cites Nepal as an example of the drastic effects that accidents can have. "After two serious accidents in Katmandu in 1992, tourism fell 20 percent," she said, "and with it the only hard currency that was coming into the country."

The advantages of a group effort. The good news is that it costs relatively little for a country to bring its air safety standards up to ICAO’s requirements. According to Bauerlein, in many countries a few million dollars—properly administered—would be enough to upgrade the necessary legal, institutional, training and oversight systems. In fact, Bauerlein believes political leadership is much more important than money in these cases. If political leaders "set the expectations, establish the priorities and build the consensus to support change," she says, safety improvements can be made quite rapidly. She cites Costa Rica and Colombia as examples of regional countries where a strong commitment by cabinet-level government officials resulted in a notable improvement in safety standards.

In this regard the new Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF)-supported program in Central America can serve as a model. The program will be executed by COCESNA, a unique regional cooperative that has been providing air traffic control, navigation and communication services to its member countries since 1960. By pooling their resources and investing in technical solutions that cover the entire Central American flight region instead of individual countries, COCESNA’s members have achieved significant savings. Since 1990 they have applied a similar philosophy to training through the Central American School for Aeronautical Training, a shared facility in El Salvador where air transport personnel from across the region gather periodically for technical courses and updates.

Now the MIF program will make it possible for the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Panama to benefit from COCESNA’s resources. The program will also strengthen COCESNA, help its members harmonize their air transport regulations, improve access to safety information and eventually enable participants to fully comply with ICAO standards.

Bob Booth, a Miami-based air transport consultant and publisher of the Aviation–Latin America & the Caribbean newsletter, said the new program will help give safety issues the priority they need. "Most serious aviation officials in the region agree that there is a problem and they’re pushing their governments to address it," he said. "The IDB is the perfect organization to do this, because it is totally independent and doesn’t have an ax to grind. It brings a real objective and independent influence to the issue, and it will also make sure that the money is well spent."

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