There’s chaos in the air

March 30, 2007 | By More

This entry was ready for publication when it landed on my desk a recent issue of VEJA magazine with an extensive report on the crisis of civil aviation in Brazil. I thought it would be interesting to add some of the information contained on the report to this entry. A bit of background before a series of funny – if not ridiculous- stories of the crisis in Brazil.

Although the crisis had been brewing for years, its outbreak has a date and a time: the tragic collision a GOL boeing against a jet plane over the Amazon six months ago. Incidentally, six months after the crash, the investigation on the causes of the tragedy hasn’t finished yet, to the dispair of the families of those who died. It would seem air traffic control – run by the Air Force – played an important role on the accident. But one of the investigations is being carried out by the Air Force itself. Many question the impartial nature of the investigation. The investigators have the data recorders, they know why, when, where and how the collision happened. They only have to identify the culprits.

Back to the outbreak of the crisis. During 2006, GOL had mantained an excellent punctuality record of 98%. TAM, of 96%. In November, the indexes fell to 60% and 54%. In December, to 47% and 43%. That is, in December most commercial aviation flights in Brazil took off with a delay of more than 15 minutes.

The crash highlighted the precarious state of the air traffic control infraestructure in Brazil. Military controllers, with very low salaries, deficient training (more than 90% of the controllers are unable to hold a conversation in English), with no labour rights, forced by their superiors to work extra hours, and forced as well to supervise more planes than the limit recommended by international aviation bodies – each Brazilian controller was responsible for up to 20 planes, when the safe limit is 14.

When the controllers began a work-to-rule, the entire system collapsed. The military workforce no longer made up for the deficiencies in infraestructure. While the market grew spectacularly, investments in infraestructure where conspicuous by its absence. In 2000, Brazilian airlines transported 41.7 million passengers. In 2006, 57.6 million.

No other place symbolizes the crisis better than the airport of Congonhas, in São Paulo, surrounding by houses all around and with high rises on the approach route of the planes. Congonhas has an operational capacity of 12 million passengers per year. In 2006, 18.5 million passengers went through the airport.

INFRAERO is the government’s body responsible for the running of the airports. Up to the arrival of Lula to power, INFRAERO was always headed by an specialist on the field. But the policy of giving preferential treatment to allies in exchange for support, a trademark of the Lula administration, meant that INFRAERO ended up on the hands of a corrupt politician. The National Audit Office has found irregularities in almost all the work done on Brazilian airports during the last four years.

The goverment reformed the main terminal at Congonhas (it was inaugurated by Lula, when the work hadn’t been finished yet, shortly before the elections). Unfortunately, the runway was forgotten (no photo opportunities to be had there) and it is now closing for reformation after four serious incidents over the last few months.

Worst was the diversion of funds collected through airport taxes. The money from one those taxes was theoretically destined to be invested on the safety of the air traffic control system in Brazil. The money, paid by Brazilians and foreigners alike, was diverted by the goverment and used to paid the interests of the debt.

And now, on to the funny stories. This week, Congonhas airport (the busiest in the country) had to close its operations for a while as there was a dead pigeon on the runway. Last week, it was a dog on the loose that forced the airport to stop operating. Never mind the infamous three millimeters (height of a coin) of rain that bring Congonhas to a standstill.

The instrument landing system of the airport of Manaus was damaged by thunder in December. It hasn’t been repaired yet.

In the midst of the chaos, the goverment decides to oppose the creation of a commission of enquiry into the causes of the chaos. Furthemore, to the amazement of disgruntled passangers, a new airport tax is announced, to subsidize airlines running loss-making routes in the interior of the country. Up to R$14 per ticket. If the current airport tax is anything to go buy, embezzlement will be the likeliest destination of the money you and I will be forced to cough up. All passengers flying through Brazil currently pay a tax that was theoretically destined to fund the air traffic control system in Brazil. Only after the tragic accident in September it was discovered that the Lula administration had been sistematically using that money for a purpose other than the one intented.

I am reading now that air traffic controllers are threatening to bring Brazil to a halt during the Panamerican Games. The government needs to get their act together now.

I am afraid this will not be the last entry you read on the topic.

Category: News

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