WASHINGTON — Citing concerns about passenger safety, federal officials Friday barred the airlines of nine Latin American and African countries from operating to or from the United States.
Transportation Secretary Federico Pena said a three-year investigation by U.S. officials showed that aviation regulations of the nine countries are too lax to guarantee acceptable pilot training and aircraft maintenance. The airlines of four other nations have received conditional approval to continue operations with heightened U.S. surveillance, Pena said.
The nine countries that have not met international safety standards are the Dominican Republic, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Uruguay, Gambia, Ghana and Zaire.
The four nations with conditional approval are Bolivia, Netherlands Antilles, El Salvador and Guatemala, officials said. Inspectors from the Federal Aviation Administration will monitor the crew training, aircraft maintenance and general operations of those airlines.
Referring to the nine countries with unacceptable standards, Pena told a news briefing that "no airline whose oversight is provided by (those countries) is allowed to operate in the United States."
However, all those nations except Gambia, Ghana and Zaire will be permitted to continue operating some flights under so-called "wet leases." With those leases, the entire operation is overseen under contract by the United States or another nation that has approved aviation standards.
Pena stressed that rejection of a country's regulations and inspection standards does not necessarily mean that its airlines are unsafe. But he suggested that "travelers should consider using U.S.-flagged carriers and carriers of other countries that have adequate civil aviation safety oversight."
Neither Russia nor China was on the banned list, despite news reports of poor safety records by Aeroflot and Air China in recent years. Pena said that neither was among 30 nations that so far have been evaluated by the FAA. He said that U.S. officials are "beginning to provide some assistance" to both countries and that final assessments could be completed later this year.
By 1997 the safety standards and regulations of all 93 countries that fly into and out of the United States will be evaluated, Pena said. Nearly half of all arriving and departing passengers between the United States and other parts of the world travel on foreign carriers.
U.S. officials began examining the air safety systems of other nations after an Avianca Airlines plane from Colombia ran out of fuel and crashed in New York in 1990 but the FAA's assessments had been kept confidential. Consumer organizations prodded the Clinton Administration to make them public, leading to Friday's announcement.
Officials have found no problems with the air safety systems of European nations. In addition, the Transportation Department listed 17 other countries that adhere to international standards: Argentina, the Bahamas, Bangladesh, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guyana, the Marshall Islands, Mexico, the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, Oman, Panama, Peru, Ukraine and Venezuela.
The Eastern Caribbean group includes Antigua and Barbuda, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominica, St. Lucia, Montserrat, Grenada and Anguilla.
Many Latin American officials have been concerned about the encroachment of U.S. airlines in their region at the expense of local carriers. But U.S. officials insisted that their actions Friday were based solely on safety concerns and not economic considerations.
FAA officials, in arriving at their assessments, are using "minimal international standards that have been adopted by the International Civil Aviation Organization" which all nations of the world have endorsed, according to Dale McDaniel, the FAA's deputy assistant administrator for policy.
"The FAA is not the world's aviation policeman and has no jurisdiction over the oversight capabilities of countries whose air carriers operate from outside the United States," Pena said.
"However, we do have a right and an obligation to look after aviation safety within our own borders."