BOGOTA, Colombia – The airline involved in last week's crash in the Andes left a trail of unpaid bills that forced Bolivia's air force to seize two planes and briefly jail one of the company's owners, Bolivian Defense Minister Reymi Ferreira said Monday.
The revelation added to a string of human errors and unsettling details about the Bolivian-based LaMia charter company's checkered past that experts say should have served as warnings to aviation authorities.
A LaMia jet carrying 77 people, including a Brazilian soccer team heading to a South American championship final, slammed into a Colombian mountainside just minutes after the pilot reported running out of fuel. Investigators are centering their probe on why the short-range jet was allowed to attempt a direct flight with barely enough fuel on board to cover the distance between Santa Cruz, Bolivia, and Medellin, Colombia.
Ferreira said that in 2014, LaMia brought its three airplanes — all of them short-haul jets made by British Aerospace — to Bolivia's air force for repair. He didn't say what maintenance work was performed but accused the airline of paying for only half the work and abandoning two of the planes.
After months of the company refusing to pay hangar fees, the government took legal action and seized the planes, Ferreira said. He added that one of LaMia's owners, pilot Miguel Quiroga, who died in the crash, was detained for a few days five months ago in the case.
Ferreira said aviation officials who signed off on LaMia's irregular flight plan would be prosecuted.
The airline, which was only licensed to fly earlier this year, has also been suspended and Bolivian officials are looking into whether the son of another owner, former air force Gen. Gustavo Vargas, favored the airline as head of the office responsible for licensing aircraft.
"This was a mistake by two or three people who are causing enormous damage to Bolivia's aviation industry, but it's not the country that's to blame," Ferreira said, alluding to the possibility that the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration could downgrade Bolivia's aviation safety ranking.
Minutes before the crash, Quiroga requested permission to land, telling air traffic controllers that he was having fuel problems without making a formal distress call, according to air traffic tower recordings. Minutes later, as the jetliner circled in a holding pattern awaiting another aircraft with its own mechanical problems to land, his voice became more desperate as he reported the fuel had run out and the aircraft was experiencing a "complete electrical failure."
Passengers on the flight were oblivious to the tense exchange and had no time to prepare for the crash, according to one of six survivors who on Monday described the final moments of the doomed flight.
"Nobody knew there was a problem," Erwin Tumiri, a technician on the flight, told Blu radio of Colombia. "We felt the plane descending but all along we thought it was preparing to land. Everything happened very quickly and from one moment to the next the plane began to shake, the lights went out and the emergency lights turned on."
Tumiri, who is recovering in a hospital in his hometown of Cochabamba, Bolivia, said the cockpit never alerted him that the plane was running low on fuel and that the pilot had requested an emergency landing.
"I think the pilot should've at least communicated to me the situation," Tumiri said, adding that he only learned about the fuel shortage from another survivor, flight attendant Ximena Sanchez.
Investigators in Colombia said Monday that they hope to have their preliminary accident report ready in 10 days.