Failure to launch
BOLIVIA’S LLOYD AÉREO BOLIVIANO AIRLINE HAS JUST TWO PLANES TO ITS NAME – BOTH OF WHICH HAVE BEEN GROUNDED FOR YEARS. SO WHY DO ITS EMPLOYEES KEEP SHOWING UP TO WORK? PHOTOGRAPHER NICK BALLON INVESTIGATES.
What’s the story behind Lloyd Aéreo Boliviano (LAB)? Bolivia’s flag carrier was founded in 1925, making it one of the first airlines in the world. Sadly, since being privatised in 1994 it has fallen into massive debt and had its licence revoked. Despite being grounded, LAB remains asset-rich, and Bolivians hold out hope it will recover. When I took these photos it was being run as a cooperative, and the workers had to clock on every day to retain their ownership of the company, even though there was no work for them to do, and no pay. They were banking on the airline taking off again or being sold so they would finally get their payout.
How did your Ezekiel 36:36 photo series take shape? In 2012 I was visiting family in Bolivia, and I drove past the LAB headquarters in Cochabamba on the way home from the airport. I sensed there was something interesting behind that perimeter fence, so I pulled over, knocked on the front door and said, in my terrible Spanish, that I was a photographer and that I wanted to make a project there. I thought I’d be turned away, but within half an hour I found myself sitting in this huge boardroom with the airline’s director. He saw the deterioration of the company as an avoidable problem, and wanted the world to know about it. He said, “Do us justice,” and gave me relative free rein to roam the building for six months.
What was the mood like? Lethargic. LAB used to employ thousands of people, but by the time I arrived it was down to about 160. Only the faithful had survived, and most were of retirement age, as all the young people had left to earn money and support their families. There wasn’t much going on; people would chat, they would water their plants, they would lie down. But when I spoke to them, there was still this underlying loyalty to the company. The older people who had started at LAB when they were in their 20s knew nothing else, and were hopeful things would change. This optimism is a very Bolivian quality.
Why is LAB so important to Bolivians? Most of us look at aviation as a way to get from A to B as cheaply as possible. But everybody I spoke with in Bolivia thought about the airline in more emotional terms: they either knew someone who had worked there, or see the airline as a point of national pride. Walking around the place you can really sense the nostalgia. LAB still keeps Boeing planes from the 1970s running, its training centre is set up like it was 40 years ago, and they have rooms full of paper tickets. There is a tangibility and a substance to the company that makes it more than a business.
What does ‘ Ezekiel 36:36’ refer to?
There is a strong religious group at the airline which acts a bit like a trade union. Back when the airline was still flying they had the power to rename the aeroplanes. One of the planes, a Boeing, had a nearly fatal accident in the jungle. Miraculously no one died, so they renamed the plane Ezekiel 36:36, after the passage in the Bible that talks about rebirth. That seemed to me like a good theme for LAB in general.
What’s the state of LAB today?
In the five years since I took these photos LAB kept trying to find ways to get its planes up in the sky, but nothing really changed. Then in March this year it was announced they were finally getting their licences back. We’ll have to wait and see if that actually happens – there have been many false starts over the years. But I really want it to be true. • Nick Ballon is a British-Bolivian photographer. Ezekiel 36:36 is available as a photo book from nickballon.com
A paper Lloyd Aéreo Boliviano logo d ecorates an office wall.
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Greenery encroaches o n the airline a s i t awaits n ews of its fate. Meanwhile, a p air of workers talk under a t ree at LAB’s unofficial canteen, where a p lank of wood on a toolbox s erves a s a t able.
Captain Zabalaga went on strike in 2012. He resigned a few days later, but donned his uniform one last t ime for Ballon’s camera. “He had no hardship against the company,” Ballon says, “though h e was incredibly emotional about l eaving.”
Waiting i s a n important part of the s truggle for LAB’s remaining employees. Workers man the fort a s a s ymbol of companionship – a nd their presence fends off c losure o r occupation by government and tax officials.
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Old engine casings p ile up in unused rooms.
A portable a irport ladder stands among the w ild g rass.
A small b ird found i ts way inside a g rounded LAB plane. It d idn’t make i t back out.
In 1985 a p assenger d etonated a g renade inside the toilet of a Boeing 727, k illing himself and causing substantial damage to the a ircraft. The p ilot was able t o land the p lane s afely.
This page from top Ezekiel 36:36 s its i n the LAB hanger. The b iblical reference sums up the unwavering faith of LAB’s workforce i n the airline’s future.
LAB opened i ts f irst f light s chool in 1927. While s till t echnically in operation, i ts mechanical f light s imulator has b een out of a ction s ince the motherboard fused in an e lectrical s torm. This paper v ersion awaits new students.
An employee f rom LAB’s s ewing shop repairs o ld s eat covers w ith a pedal-powered s ewing machine. His colleague t ests the resistance of s afety b elts in compliance w ith international regulations.