Page last updated at 12:17 GMT, Wednesday, 4 April 2007 13:17 UK

Air chaos is new blow to Brazil's image

By Robert Plummer
Business reporter, BBC News

As the Easter weekend looms, travellers in Brazil are braced for a possible repeat of the strike by air traffic controllers that left thousands of passengers stranded at airports across the country last Friday.

Planes on runway at Sao Paulo's main airport with sign reading: Think Big
But is Brazil thinking big enough about its air industry?

The Aeronautical Command of the Brazilian defence ministry has outlined an emergency plan in an effort to ensure that flights will continue as normal if controllers resume their protests over working conditions.

Under the plan, 1,000 members of the Brazilian air force would take on the duties of the country's 2,500 air traffic controllers, who are subject to military discipline even though they work in civil aviation.

Hopes are high that a further "mutiny" (as the military calls it) can be averted.

But in any case, the recent air chaos has already exacerbated Brazil's worst infrastructure crisis in six years, shown up the country's president as indecisive and raised questions about the armed forces' control over Brazilian airspace.

Airline turmoil

Air travel in Brazil has been in disarray for nearly a year now, ever since the once-mighty flag-carrier Varig began cancelling flights because it could no longer meet operating payments.

After months of efforts to restructure and sell off the debt-ridden airline, it fell into the hands of budget airline Gol, which snapped it up last week for $275m (140m).

Gol intends to maintain the Varig brand while reducing the airline's costs through improved efficiencies. Gol will continue to serve the South American market, while Varig will fly to destinations including Miami, New York, Mexico City, London, Frankfurt, Madrid, Milan and Paris.

But that piece of good news for travellers was overshadowed by the latest episode in the almost equally long-running saga of Brazil's discontented air traffic controllers.

Gol plane taking off from Sao Paulo's Congonhas airport
Gol eventually proved the winner in the race to buy Varig

Those problems began in October last year, when a collision involving a US-owned private jet and a Gol Boeing 737 over the Amazon rainforest killed all 154 people on board the Boeing.

The crash was Brazil's worst air disaster.

Since that accident, various shortcomings in the cash-strapped Brazilian air traffic system have come to light.

Radar coverage of the Amazon is apparently plagued by black holes, despite the launch five years ago of a $1.4bn surveillance system, known as Sivam, that was supposed to protect the region from drug-runners and illegal loggers.

And according to media reports, the poor English of controllers attempting to communicate with the executive jet's American pilots may have been a factor in the crash.

Last Friday, relatives of some of the crash victims filed 16 separate actions in a US federal court in Miami seeking millions of dollars in damages from the jet's owner, Excelaire, and pilots Joseph Lepore and Jan Paladino, both of whom survived the accident.

Civilian or military?

The other main consquence of the disaster has been a go-slow by the air traffic controllers, who have been working to rule in protest at low staffing levels, overwork and low pay.

On the same day that the Miami lawsuits were filed, the controllers' campaign came to a head in Brasilia, when about 120 of them began a hunger strike and a sit-in to try to secure better working conditions.

Gol and Varig planes on the runway in Sao Paulo
Brazil's planes could soon be grounded again

The protest spread across Brazil after the men were told they faced prosecution for mutiny, since most of them were air force sergeants.

For several hours, the country's airports were paralysed as controllers refused to allow any planes to take off.

One of the strikers' key demands was for their sector to be switched to civilian management. The idea that directing civil aviation should be under the armed forces' control is arguably an unnecessary hangover from Brazil's years of military rule, which ended in 1985.

They returned to work after the government's planning minister, Paulo Bernardo, agreed to "a gradual implementation of a civil solution".

But President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva later went back on the deal, saying: "Only after order has been re-established can we go back to talking about changes in the sector. I understand the reasons for the strike, but we can't allow this in the aeronautic service."

Muddling through

Observers say Lula was bowing to pressure from military commanders who were angered at his decision to negotiate with the strikers rather than discipline them.

Clearly wavering between his position as commander-in-chief and his background as a former trade union leader, Lula ended up muddling his way through.

The last time Brazil faced infrastructure problems on this scale was in 2001, when energy shortages led to six months of power cuts and rationing across the country.

At the time, Brazil was 93% dependent on hydro-electric power and a drought had left many reservoirs very low.

In response, the administration of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso decided to promote gas-fired power plants as a way of diversifying out of the crisis.

But the gas is piped in from Bolivia, where President Evo Morales has recently threatened Brazilian interests by nationalising facilities owned by Brazil's state energy firm, Petrobras.

Lula eventually resolved the issue by striking a complicated deal with Bolivia over gas prices that essentially made concessions to Mr Morales while allowing Brazil to save face.

Once again, Lula seems to be trying to be all things to all people in this latest crisis - but with tempers running high, he may need to show more toughness if he wants to avoid further chaos in the air.

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