Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino, the American pilots of the Legacy executive jet, which collided on September 29 with Gol’s Boeing 737 over the Brazilian Amazon resulting in the death of all 154 people aboard, may be housed in the presidential suite of a five-star hotel in the glamorous beach of Copacabana, but they don’t seem even for a second to be enjoying the compulsory vacation courtesy of the Brazilian authorities.
Lepore and Paladino have had their American passport confiscated and they have been forced to stay confined in Rio’s JW Marriott hotel.
The pilots have been spending most of their time, according to hotel workers, locked inside their room watching TV, surfing the Internet and talking to friends and relatives in the Net or the telephone.
While the Avenida Atlântica hotel, among the best 15 hotels in Latin America according to Conde Nest, offers breathtaking views of the Sugar Loaf and the Corcovado and Copacabana beach is just across de street from their room, the Yankees keep their curtains closed.
Although the Marriott also has several restaurants, including one with Japanese cuisine, as well as a swimming pool, sauna and a fitness center, the two pilots seem to be enjoying none of that.
Their employer, New-York-based ExcelAire, the air-taxi company that bought the Legacy involved in the accident, is picking up the tab. The bill has already surpassed US$ 115,000 with the hotel charging a US$ 2,000 daily rate. Food, laundry and other expenses are all extra. The Brazilian contribution: they have been kept on a 24-hour watch.
For Theo Dias, the pilot’s lawyer, they are entirely justified in looking for privacy. And as he told Brazilian reporters: "Everybody is talking a lot about the trauma air traffic controllers are going through, but the same is happening to the pilots. And in their case they are in a foreign country, far from their families and insecure in regard to their future."
The American pilots’ confinement in a Rio luxurious hotel has lasted now for almost two months. Both had their passports seized by Brazil’s Federal Police, on October 3, while they were being undergoing clinical exams at the Brazilian Air Force’s Airspace Medicine Center, in Rio.
The wives of both pilots came for a visit on October 7. Ellen Lepore, 41, and Melissa Paladin, 33, from New York, arrived in an American Airlines flight and went directly to the JW Marriott without talking to reporters. But they have returned to their own jobs and family in the US soon after the visit.
Several court filings by their lawyer haven’t convinced the Brazilian justice to let them go. On Friday, November 23, the First Region’s Regional Office of the Republic’s Attorney General issued the opinion that the Federal Justice in Sinop, state of Mato Grosso, has the right to keep holding the two foreign pilots.
Dias, last week, had filed in court a request for a habeas corpus arguing that investigations on the accident would take at least 10 more and that it wouldn’t be fair to keep his clients detained for all this time.
In justifying the denial the Federal Public Attorney Office wrote: "The excessive time needed to conclude the investigations doesn’t justify by itself a habeas corpus. Such excess should be purposeless or unjustified, which is not the case of the judicial proceedings in view of the complexity of technical prove gathering."
In the Marriott’s top floor, the 17th, where Lepore and Paladino are staying, security guards in the corridor maintain an around-the-clock vigil to prevent the presence of any stranger. A black cloth covers a window to the corridor in a way that people cannot see from outside what’s going on at that floor.
In their classically-decorated 970-sq-feet suite the pilots have two living rooms, two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a kitchen. The place is reserved under their name until December 15.
Meanwhile, Brazilian Defense Minister, Waldir Pires, who has taken center stage in the whole affair of the planes collision and its aftermath, a chaotic situation the airports, continues issuing almost daily declarations.
This Saturday, November 25, Pires denied that the ousting of lieutenant-brigadier Paulo Roberto Cardoso Vilarinho from the Decea (Air Space Control Department) had anything to do with the current crisis in the aviation sector in Brazil.
"The leadership change," he told reporters in São Paulo, "is a routine measure." Vilarinho who had been clashing with the minister was until Friday, Brazil’s air space honcho. Pires once again denied that Brazil has blind spots in its communication network.
"The information I have," he said, "is that these black holes don’t exist. I am not an expert, but the Air Force has these data. If the holes existed I’m sure I would have been informed. This is my expectation at least."
The defense minister also said that the cases of near-accidents in the Brazilian air space (there were 796 confirmed near-collision cases from January 1998 to July 2006) are common all over the world and bring to danger to the Brazilian skies: "They represent no danger at all. By the way, our numbers in these near-accidents are below those from the United States."