Episodic international criticism of Brazil’s aviation system, as well as a huge triggering of public outcries over the recent crash of the TAM Airbus A320, has forced senior officials in the country to begin to take steps to implement, on an urgent basis, a series of changes. These come after one year of the country’s airline system’s mounting safety problems connected to São Paulo’s main airport for domestic flights, Congonhas.
The July TAM Airbus crash, in which 199 people were killed, represented the worst aviation accident in Brazil’s history. While its definite cause has not yet been determined, officials have been quick to accuse the short runway, dangerous weather conditions and insufficient security precautions as possible reasons for the crash.
What is certain is that Infraero, the Brazilian government corporation that is responsible for administering the nation’s main airports, has come under extensive scrutiny after the latest crash. As a result, the government has been entertaining the thought of opening up the public agency to private investment in order to adequately capitalize the operation.
Brazil has been one of the few countries in the hemisphere whose airline operations are administered by the military. With this latest tragedy, questions are now being raised over the military’s competence in handling this responsibility and whether or not it would be more prudent to transfer at least a segment of the air industry to private ownership.
Nearly 400 Dead Within 10 Months
Since September of last year, when 154 people were killed in a mid-air collision between two planes flying over the Amazon, major deficiencies within the Brazilian air system have come to light. On several occasions, rain and fog forced the closure of Congonhas Airport in São Paulo, causing sequential scheduling chaos at other airports around the country.
A radar failure over the Amazon, only one week after July’s tragic crash, compelled flights to turn back to their cities of origin. Since then, pilots have refused to land on Congonhas’ runways in the rain. Furthermore, cancellations, delays, radar outages and thousands of stranded passengers seem to be everyday occurrences in Brazil.
After the last incident, the authorities temporarily suspended ticket sales for flights out of Congonhas until the safety situation was securely under control. The International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers Association described São Paulo’s air safety record as “a danger to the traveling public.”
While Brazil’s air traffic system is obviously under heavy siege, President da Silva breezily stepped aside from global concerns over the latest crash when he announced, “the security of our aviation system is compatible with all other international standards.”
The fact that São Paulo’s airport serves as a main hub for all major domestic flights fosters chronic problems such as delays and flight cancellations. Congonhas does not, even under the best of days, have the capacity to support such traffic volume with guaranteed safety.
Private investors possibly could help to generate the necessary capital to improve safety as well as finance the enlargement of existing airports, but concerns remain over why such a facility should be privatized rather than remain public, particularly when the private sector throughout Latin America is far from being unblemished by charges of corruption, venery, bribery and inefficiencies of every nature.
José Carlos Pereira, the former President of Infraero, was replaced by Sérgio Gaudenzi just two weeks after the most recent crash. During his term in office, Pereira was convinced that “it is not the best moment to carry out changes,” and was unwilling to accept that there was a need for reorganization of Brazil’s military-controlled air system.
Pereira tried to defend himself against such accusations and said that he was aware of the airport’s overload and insufficient resources and criticized the policy of Brazilian commercial airline companies, which in turn, were driven by a desire to increase market-share. This exerted sustained pressure on him to maintain heavy use of the small and antiquated Congonhas airport as Brazil’s main domestic hub for short-haul flights.
Since the September 2006 Gol crash over the Amazon, controllers felt unfairly targeted for splenetic criticism they were receiving from the public, and reacted by staging several work stoppages, forcing thousands of passengers to be stranded at airports across the country.
Complaints about low staffing levels, poor working conditions – including 18-hour work shifts – strengthened air traffic controllers’ arguments for a switch to be made of their operation to civilian management. The fact that Infraero supervises 97% of the air carriers’ activity within Brazil makes it a very profitable company, pouring a good deal of revenue into the national coffers.
Despite international criticism of Brazil’s system of air traffic control, Pereira insisted just two days after the most recent accident that “Brazil does not need international help. The crisis is ours. The dead are ours.” He was highly criticized for refusing outside assistance and ultimately was dismissed because of what was perceived as Infraero’s untenable record.
Infrastructure and Economic Growth
Radar failure, electronic problems and continuous flight cancellations have led to months of bedlam in Brazil’s air flight system. Brazil’s aviation infrastructure already faced difficulties in keeping pace with the meteoric economic growth of the rapidly industrializing country.
Brazil’s total annual flight traffic growth of 10% may be encouraging, but its investments in apprenticeship programs and new equipment remain negligible. Lula said that he wants the national economy to grow by 5% every year, though the crisis at Congonhas clearly demonstrates that Brazil’s infrastructure may not be ready for such sustained growth.
While air traffic volume is at times growing four times quicker than Brazil’s overall economy, the government remains unwilling to make a major investment in the airline sector. Extraordinarily, in the last fifteen years, the total number of air traffic controllers has been reduced from 3,200 to 2,500, even though air traffic in Brazil has doubled. Two air crashes within 10 months and a death toll approaching 400 are graphic reminders of the pressing need for a major new tranche of investment in aviation infrastructure.
To some, throughout the recent crisis, the Brazilian president appeared both indecisive and incapable of handling the situation that at times appeared to overwhelm him. Citizens in the past have complained that the government has not awarded sufficient attention to solving the nation’s aviation predicament, and have called for an immediate overhaul of the industry’s basic structure.
A Delphic Lula disagreed with these outcries and stated, “Only after order has been re-established, we can go back to talk about changes in the sector.” After ongoing strikes by air traffic controllers, the government’s planning minister, Paulo Bernardo, agreed to “a gradual implementation of a civil solution.”
Aviation officials announced that as a first step towards controlling the situation is to limit the number of flights and place weight restrictions on planes operating in and out of Congonhas.
Aviation Controllers Call For Change
Brazil’s many years of military rule ended in 1985, but the armed forces still retained control over civilian aviation. As the need for change became even more obvious after the second catastrophe crash within 10 months, and with pressure being placed on top aviation officials,
Lula fired the defense minister, Waldir Pires. In his place, Lula appointed Nelson Jobim. At the time, Pires was severely criticized for his inability to adequately tackle the crisis. Jobim, a highly respected former Supreme Court president and justice minister, announced that he would make the much-needed changes after a year of disarray in the military-dominated aviation industry.
Though Lula in the past has shown his personal aversion towards any form of confrontation with the military concerning the aviation sector, Jobim is expected to more aggressively press for a renovation of it. He insists that he will try to sway the military into releasing some of its purview over civil aviation management.
Unlike Waldir Pires, whose hands were tied with bureaucratic red tape and consequently could not alter the structure of the military command, Jobim has received the authority to act freely. The reorganization of Infraero’s inefficient and ineffective administration of Congonhas’ safety operations is one of the fundamental measures Jobim will be addressing in order to prevent further air disasters.
The Quest for a Scapegoat
Still looking for the definitive reason for July’s crash, investigators have reported that two thrust reversers on the TAM Airbus had been deactivated during the flight, which could have added to the plane’s inability to slow down.
Officials of the airline company refuted this accusation, and raised the possibility of pilot error or some mechanical mishap instead, while at the same time insisting that the thrust deactivation process was in conformity with flight regulations.
Airline officials argued that the Congonhas runway, which is too short by modern standards, was the main reason for the accident. Pilots have long complained about the slippery conditions of Congonhas’ main runway during rainy weather.
In fact, it had been repaved just weeks before the crash and though airport officials recommended waiting longer, Pereira ordered the re-opening of the tarmac.
Experts say the necessary procedure of grooving the asphalt, which helps allow rainwater to drain, had not been carried out. The government denied that the runway played a role in the incident, in which the TAM Airbus exploded after it crashed into an office building and a gas station.
President da Silva’s government has come under a great deal of fire for failing to properly address the nation’s air travel safety, an act that according to several aviation experts and the adamant belief of a good deal of the public sentiment, led to the air disaster.
The security video, whose frames were made public by the air force, tends to corroborate the position of the government. It shows the TAM Airbus speeding down the runway four times as fast as usual, which buttresses the government’s provisional finding that the airbus was not being flown in a safe manner.
Many are blaming the accident on a mechanical fault, others point to pilot error, but the majority of the public seems to blame the disaster on an increasingly defensive government.
Two weeks after Brazil’s deadliest air incident, thousands of Brazilian demonstrators took to the streets to publicly express their judgment by holding up banners saying “Misgoverning kills.”
The relatives of the 199 people who died in the TAM crash blame Lula’s alleged maladministration and negligence for being the real culprit, and are calling upon Lula to acknowledge the blame of his administration for the crash.
Admittedly, this could be an emotional overreaction, but in any event, Lula would be well advised to view the turmoil surrounding the recent crashes and the chaos they have awakened, as grounds for a “wake-up call”.
Lula already has announced that the authorities will be planning a new airport in São Paulo, to take the place of Congonhas, which will be succeeding it as the main hub for all domestic flights.
Considering that the project will take 5 to 10 years to complete, and is not likely to improve the current situation in the short term, the government should consider that this project should not have priority over immediate improvements to the existing system.
Not surprisingly, Lula has insisted that the defense ministry has to receive “sufficient funds to do what has to be done,” and he underlined that he is willing to pledge all necessary financing for the total replacement of any existing facilities and equipment with new and up-to-date technologies.
His new, more dynamic attitude toward change seems to be tantamount to a confession of guilt for past neglect. For weeks, Lula “played dead” and tried to escape responsibility by drawing attention to others, which is characteristic of his management style.
While it is unfair to blame only the government for the latest crash, the fact is that Lula failed, as the president of the country, to lead his nation with a firm hand through this latest crisis-once again making himself appear, perhaps unfairly, as a weak and indecisive chief executive with his hands not on the wheel at a time of crisis, but over his eyes.
This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Concetta Kim Martens. The Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) – www.coha.org – is a think tank established in 1975 to discuss and promote inter-American relationship. Email: email@example.com.