When nobody’s at the controls: the recent crash only highlights the chaos of Brazil’s airline industry

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A few days after a TAM Airlines Airbus 320 touched down just outside Silo Paulo’s Congonhas airport and skidded into a gas station, igniting the worst airline disaster in Brazil’s history, five flights between the city of Sao Paulo and the United States were turned back. Apparently, the radar system monitoring Brazilian airspace had temporarily shut down.

The long delays caused by the shutdown may have been a minor concern compared to the crash, which took the lives of nearly 200 people, but they’re indicative of the deep chaos that has plagued the country’s aviation sector since last September, when a Brazilian commercial airliner crashed into a private jet over the Amazon rainforest, killing 154.

Since then, the Brazilian civilian aviation sector, whose infrastructure is still largely controlled by the military, seems to be falling apart at the seams. Most glaringly, the country’s air traffic controllers, who were blamed for the September disaster, have gone on work-to-rule to protest the government’s ongoing mishandling of the investigation into the crash.

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The situation has created long lines and it has even provoked rioting at airports across the country from frustrated passengers whose flights have been delayed or cancelled. The effort to devise a solution to the problem of chronically underpaid and understaffed air traffic controllers is a logistical nightmare in a country where there are more than 10 government agencies overseeing aviation.

“How many people will be killed before the Brazilian government stops the [air force’s] live experiments on the travelling public’s safety?” said Marc Baumgartner, the president of the International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers in Montreal. In a strongly worded statement to the press following the crash in Sao Paulo, Baumgartner accused the Brazilian government of “chasing scapegoats” among the Brazilian air traffic controllers instead of “re-engineering the necessary safety oversight and risk assessment to prevent Brazilian civil aviation from falling into deeper chaos.”

In a televised speech last week, Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva promised to get tough on safety and build a new airport in Sao Paulo to ease congestion. “Our aviation system, in spite of the investments we have made in the expansion and modernization of almost all Brazilian airports, is passing through difficulties,” he said. He announced several measures, including a ban on charter, cargo and executive flights to Congonhas, to ease the pressure.

Although the investigation has just begun, aviation experts say that the Airbus 320 that crashed at Congonhas, the country’s busiest airport, was too large for the airport’s short runways. Last February, a federal judge prohibited the landing of several types of aircraft at the airport, including Fokker 100, Boeing 737-800 and Boeing 737-700.

Despite these safety concerns, there has continued to be tremendous pressure from commercial and political interest groups to allow large aircraft to land at the airport, conveniently located in the city’s centre, and the temporary ban was eventually overturned. Even pilots who had expressed complaints in the past felt they had no choice but to land larger aircraft at Congonhas.

“The pilot has to go. It’s his job,” said Carlos Gilberto Salvador Camacho, director of flight security for the National Union of Pilots, to a Sao Paulo newspaper last week. “There is subliminal pressure from the commercial airlines that if you don’t land there you are somehow hurting the companies that rely on their revenues from the passengers.”

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Across the country, the government’s critics are demanding that more be done to remedy a chaotic situation. “What exploded at Congonhas was not just the TAM jet and its almost 200 victims, but the credibility of the Brazilian system of civil aviation,” said Cezar Britto, the national president of the Order of Brazilian Lawyers in a written press statement after the Congonhas crash. “Ten months ago, the country felt the impact of the worst disaster in its history of civil aviation, an incident which lifted the veil off the chaos in the industry, and we completely ignored it.”

So is it safe to fly in Brazil? The experts say it is. After all, this is a country with a pioneering legacy of air travel. Brazil is the birthplace of Alberto Santos-Dumont, a pioneer of civil aviation whose contribution to air travel in the early 20th century is believed to be as important as that of the Wright brothers in the United States. “We’re dealing with a country with a tremendous aviation legacy,” says Michael Boyd, an aviation consultant based in Evergreen, Colo., “and I would like to say that order and compassion are going to come out of this disaster, but we’re dealing with governments who wait for this kind of thing to blow over.”

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