Fail­ure to launch

Smith Journal - - Opinion - In­ter­viewer Chris Har­ri­gan Pho­tog­ra­pher Nick Bal­lon


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 nick­bal­

Page 109

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.”

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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.

Clock­wise from top le ft

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.

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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.

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