The Federal Aviation Administration says it just wants to make the skies safer. Some Caribbean and Latin American countries say what the FAA really wants is more U.S. planes in their skies.
When it launched its international certification program in 1991, the FAA focused on other countries in the Western Hemisphere. The program puts pressure on nations to meet the standards of the International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N. agency.
Several countries feeling the squeeze of low ratings in the program contend the FAA is motivated, at least in part, by politics and trade.
Ministers from the 14-member Caribbean Community contend lower ratings are more likely in countries whose airlines buy European-made planes, such as Airbuses, rather than U.S. aircraft.
"There seem to be situations where it would appear that if you were buying or leasing U.S.-made aircraft, you might have been treated differently," said Byron Blake, a Caricom assistant secretary general.
Air Jamaica recently replaced its fleet of aging Boeing 727s with Airbuses. But its routes and the number of aircraft it may fly are restricted because Jamaica has a conditional, or Category 2, rating from the FAA.
"It has affected the whole economics of the operation," said William Rodgers, an Air Jamaica senior vice president. "It's really retarded our progress."
A Category 1 rating, or satisfactory, allows a country's airlines to operate normally to the United States. Category 3 is unsatisfactory and usually means a country's airlines are barred from landing at U.S. airports.
U.S. carriers flying to countries with low ratings do not suffer from the restrictions or suspensions--and they get the business their sidelined competition must turn away.
FAA spokeswoman Rebecca Trexler insisted that safety was the agency's sole concern.
An International Airline Passengers Assn. study of airline operations during the five years ending in June 1996 seems to support the FAA's ratings. It found that aircraft traveling to or from Category 2 countries had fatal accidents at a rate of about 2 per million flights. The Category 1 rate was much lower: about one fatal accident per 4 million flights.