Colombian Airline Says Its Planes Are Safe

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) -- The small Colombian airline whose plane crashed in Venezuela, killing 160 people, has a track record of mechanical and financial problems, but airline officials insisted they do not cut corners when it comes to safety.

Martin Gonzalez, spokesman for Colombia's civil aviation authority, said West Caribbean Airways was fined $45,000 for a litany of violations, including pilots and other crew flying too many hours, lack of training for flight crews and failure to log required flight data.

Officials for West Caribbean Airways said the same plane that crashed Tuesday had dropped its tail cone during a flight in early July.

Airline spokesman John Ospina told The Associated Press the McDonnell Douglas MD-82, built in 1984, landed safely on that flight to Colombia's coffee-growing region. He said the pilots weren't even aware they had lost the tail cone until after they landed.

Paul Czysz, emeritus professor of aerospace engineering at St. Louis University, said the loss of the tail cone did not hint at deeper problems.

''It's like your taillight lens falling off,'' he said. ''It's more embarrassing than anything else.''

The MD-82 passed all safety inspections Monday night in Colombia before heading to Panama to begin Tuesday's ill-fated flight, Ospina said.

''We have always followed the safety rules,'' Ospina insisted in a telephone interview from West Caribbean Airways' headquarters in Medellin, Colombia.

West Caribbean launched operations in 1998, offering cut-rate deals on a few routes, including one for vacationers to the Colombian-owned Caribbean island of Old Providence. But travelers did not snap up tickets, which helped push the company into heavy debt, forcing the government to oversee a plan to help the airline recover.

Its fleet at one time had 12 planes, but the airline now has just four registered to fly. Two of them are under maintenance. In March, a West Caribbean plane crashed during takeoff from Old Providence, killing eight people and injuring the other six people aboard.

Ospina said West Caribbean has increased its prices to stay afloat and is owed money by various groups, including the Colombian government. Once these debts are paid, the airline should be able to stabilize its financial situation, Ospina said.

The airline will also have to rebuild passenger confidence after suffering two crashes in 2005.

On Old Providence, officials at the island's small airport announced the suspension Tuesday of all West Caribbean flights after the MD-82 went down in Venezuela. Two dozen stranded passengers huddled around a television, watching news reports of the crash.

''I don't even want to fly on West Caribbean,'' said one of the ticket-holders, Olmo Cardoso, a Colombian-Italian student. ''Two crashes in such a short period is obviously too much. There's something wrong.''


Associated Press writer Leslie Miller contributed to this story from Washington.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press