August 9, 2013 2:42 pm

Bolivia’s LAB airline: We regret to announce

The South American airline is among the world’s oldest, but it hasn’t flown a passenger for years. So why do its staff report for duty – even though they have little to do and no hope of being paid?
Captain Zabalaga©Nick Ballon

Captain Zabalaga resigned after his crew went on strike late in 2012 demanding their salaries.

A truck laden with wooden crates rumbled into the­ ­provincial Bolivian town of Cochabamba in September 1925. Its payload was a Junkers F13 ­aircraft and a 300-horsepower BMW engine. Riding up front was Willy Neuehoffen, a German pilot and mechanic, and waiting for him in the town square a group of German émigré entrepreneurs. Such were the whimsical beginnings of Lloyd Aéreo Boliviano – one of the world’s oldest surviving airlines and, in its day, a pioneer of aviation ­technology and commercial flight.

It is bizarre that Bolivia once had this distinction. The country is more usually imagined as a nation of quaint indigenous groups scraping out oxygen-starved livelihoods in the high Andes. Yet, perhaps because Bolivia is nearer the heavens than the sea, its aircraft often seem to be in the news.

Only last month, an international incident swirled around Bolivia’s presidential aircraft after it was forced to land in Vienna on the suspicion that Edward Snowden was on board. It was thought that, in a snub to Washington, Evo Morales, Bolivia’s leftist president, was trying to smuggle the US intelligence officer-turned-whistleblower to La Paz. In fact, Snowden had remained in Moscow. Morales, a former union leader, milked the incident for all its political worth. His aircraft’s diversion, he thundered, was an example of first-world imperialism run amok.

Nick Ballon’s photographic essay about LAB, a whole fleet of grounded Bolivian aircraft, is a ­quieter and more poetic story, but perhaps a truer, if sadder, one. Metal boarding stairs rise to nowhere in empty hangars. A Boeing 767 flight simulator worth $2.5m remains in a box, unopened for more than six years. A trestle table sits under some shade trees, all that is left of the company canteen. A dead bird lies on a blue seat in an empty aircraft.

In its heyday, LAB, its emblem picked out in that same blue on its aircraft, flew to Europe and the US. The government officially ­christened the airline “The Condor of the Andes”. In the 1930s, LAB planes transported wounded Bolivian troops from the frontline of the Chaco war with neighbouring Paraguay. In 1988, while still the nationally owned flag carrier, it brought Pope John Paul II to Bolivia. Then hyperinflation struck, and LAB was sold to private investors, who ­mismanaged the company; each turnround plan no more successful than the last. The coup de grâce came in 2007, when Morales founded a new national flag carrier. LAB was left to wither on the tarmac.

Today, many of its 200 workers, a tenth of the original workforce, remain unpaid, yet they still turn up for work. Saddled with $150m of debt, LAB has just one revenue-generating asset: an aircraft leased to the military. Its name, Ezekiel 36:36, captures the hope that LAB might yet return to glory. “Then the nations that are left round about you shall know that I the Lord rebuild the ruined places, and replant that which was desolate: I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it.”

Many of Ballon’s projects are suffused with a similar melancholy – such as a photo-essay of Chacaltaya, a mountain losing its snow cover to global warming. “I don’t look for them,” the British-Bolivian photographer says. “They find me.” This story began with a chance encounter at LAB’s offices in Cochabamba. The CEO happened to be in and quickly called a board meeting: the photographer might generate the publicity needed to save the airline. “I wasn’t sure why I was there,” Ballon recalls. “I only knew it was something beautiful.”

Latin America is home to many a once grand enterprise, be it a Guatemalan cochineal concern, Cuban sugar mill or Bolivian airline. As the splendour fades, each is reclaimed, in time, by its ­surroundings, often the jungle. In Cochabamba, as LAB’s assets are impounded, disassembled and trucked away, the former sense of majesty is being packed into wooden crates similar to those that were delivered at the start of its story.

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John Paul Rathbone is the FT’s Latin America editor. Additional research: Amaru Villanueva Rance

To comment, email magazineletters@ft.com

“Ezekiel 36:36” runs at KK Outlet, London, until August 31. The book is available from www.labproject.co.uk

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Letter in response to this article:

How I survived a contract in Cochabamba / From Mr William de Segundo

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