WHEN phone footage came to light last year of a stripper opening the throttle during the take-off of a commercial jet operated by Aerolíneas Argentina, the public outcry was predictably fierce. Argentina’s state-owned flag carrier swiftly sacked the pilots who had invited her into the cockpit and the lady herself was banned from the airline for five years. Endangering the safety of passengers is a serious concern. Yet the company’s assault on the public finances is almost as reckless: Argentines have tolerated vast subsidies and huge losses at their national airline.

Even without the drag of state ownership, other South American airlines have recently either lost money or made only meagre profits (see chart). Airlines in Latin America as a whole (whose performance is flattered by the inclusion of Mexico’s mostly profitable flyers) even surpassed Africa’s beleaguered carriers in their ability to lose money in 2015, according to IATA, an industry body. That marks them out at a time when the tailwinds of growing passenger numbers and cheap fuel have carried many other airlines to unusual heights of profitability.

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