Brazil Air Chaos

Monday, July 23, 2007
By George Hatcher

Stranding passengers got a taste of Brazil.

Political cronyism to chronic underfunding in Brazil’s aviation system are considered as possible contributors to two major air disasters in less than a year––followed by a major radar failure over the Amazon.

For about three hours, air traffic controllers closed Brazilian air space.

An Airbus 320 operated by TAM Airlines crashed Tuesday at Congonhas airport in Sao Paulo, killing all 187 people aboard and at least four on the ground. Jorge Botelho, president of Brazil’s union representing air traffic controllers, on Sunday ridiculed the possibility of sabotage. He said that the government wants to blame the controllers to avoid responsibility for systemic air safety problems.

Brazilians have been suffering flight delays and cancellations since September, when a Gol Airlines Boeing 737 collided with an executive jet and crashed in the Amazon rainforest killing 154 people. Four air traffic controllers and the executive jet’s two American pilots, face criminal charges.

The accident touched off months of delays and canceled flights, as air traffic controllers held work slowdowns and stoppages to protest precarious conditions.

Brazil’s airports are seriously underfunded and stretched to the limit.

“There have been warnings, warnings, warnings about the need to do something about the communications systems, about the runways,” Brazilian aviation consultant Elias Gedeon said. “The government didn’t understand the importance of this. This is very bad for Brazil.”

Problems stretch back at least five years. Spending on aviation safety has averaged about $250 million a year since Silva took office in 2003, half of what was spent in 2002.

That the government has doled out top aviation posts to political appointees with little or no expertise in the field. The government spent millions to renovate the terminal at Congonhas airport. Tarmac improvements were saved for last and the runway was reopened before the renovation could be completed.

On Sunday, Amaury Guedes, a 72-year-old retired flight attendant, summed up the feelings of many Brazilians. “It was a tragedy waiting to happen because the planes kept growing, the wide bodies, and the runways were never extended to handle them,” Guedes said. “There are just too many passengers, and infrastructure hasn’t kept up with the growth.”

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