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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 July 2007, 09:55 GMT 10:55 UK
Airport is symbol of Brazil's air chaos
By Robert Plummer
Business reporter, BBC News

Even before Congonhas airport in Sao Paulo became the scene of Brazil's worst aviation disaster, it was already notorious as a symbol of transport chaos in the country.

Rescuers look for bodies at the scene of the crash at Sao Paulo's Congonhas airport, 17 July 2007
Up to 200 people were killed in Tuesday's crash

Congonhas has always been popular with business travellers because it is just 8km (5 miles) from the city centre, as opposed to the main international Guarulhos airport, which is 35km out of town.

It is also Brazil's busiest airport: more than 17 million passengers passed through it in 2005.

But it has problems going back as far as October 1996, when a TAM airlines Fokker-100 plane crashed shortly after take-off, hitting a block of flats and several houses. All 96 people on board were killed, as well as three on the ground.

That accident prompted fears that Congonhas was too close to residential areas and that its runways were too short for comfort - especially for pilots trying to land during Sao Paulo's all-too-frequent heavy rainstorms.

In February, a federal court briefly banned three types of large jet from using the airport, before the decision was overturned on appeal because of its potential economic impact.

At the same time, wider problems have intensified pressure on Congonhas, with discontent among air traffic controllers turning into a major infrastructure crisis across Brazil.

Airline turmoil

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

Compare the size of Sao Paulo's Congonhas Airport with similar airports in the US and UK

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 in April for $275m (140m).

The implosion of Varig left the way clear for Brazil's other airlines, TAM and Gol, but it also made flights scarcer and more expensive - a serious difficulty in a country that is larger than all of Europe put together.

In October 2006, another crash brought matters to a head. 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.

In the aftermath of that accident, various shortcomings in the cash-strapped Brazilian air traffic system came 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 2006 crash.

Civilian or military?

The other main consequence of that disaster was a go-slow by the air traffic controllers, who started working to rule in protest at low staffing levels, overwork and low pay.

Planes on runway at Sao Paulo's main airport with sign reading: Think Big
The advice to Think Big has not been heeded
The discontent was exacerbated in March after the men were told they faced prosecution for mutiny, since they are subject to military discipline even though they work in civil aviation.

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.

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

But the problem has failed to go away. The air traffic dispute resurfaced in June, when renewed delays at airports prompted the Aeronautical Command of the Brazilian defence ministry to remove 14 controllers considered to be the ringleaders.

Defenders of Congonhas airport point out that neither the air traffic control problems nor the type of jet could be blamed for Tuesday's crash.

The plane, an Airbus A320, was not covered by the short-lived federal ban, they say.

But now that Brazil has suffered another major air accident, public confidence in the country's aviation is at an all-time low - and the authorities are likely to come under increasing pressure to resolve the long-running problems in the system.

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