Brazilian aviation in chaos

It is the kind of information to send shivers down any air traveller’s spine. When Brazil’s air traffic control software was installed in the 1990s, says Ernandes Pereira da Silva, technical director of one of the controllers’ associations, “the same plane would pop up at two or three different places on your screen, at speeds that were wrong by up to 40 per cent. Things have got better, but it still happens now and again”.

Brazilian civil aviation has been in a state of near-crisis since last September, when a mid-air collision between an executive jet and a Boeing 737 operated by Gol, a low-cost operator, left 154 people dead.

The cause of the accident has yet to be identified but the controllers on duty were suspended and their colleagues – who complained of being forced to monitor 20 or more aircraft at one time, compared with what they say is a safe limit of 14 – began to work to rule.

Since then a series of equipment failures have exposed other shortcomings in investment and maintenance. Last week it emerged that the guided landing system at São Paulo’s main international airport had been out of service for a month, leaving pilots to land using visual clues alone.

Brazil’s air traffic controllers have been complaining about these and other problems for years. But over the past six months their complaints have got louder, culminating in a strike on Friday that stopped passenger flights altogether for several hours. More chaos can be expected soon if the controllers’ demands for better pay and working conditions are not met.

At the root of the trouble, critics say, is the fact that Brazil is one of the few remaining countries where air traffic control is run by the military. About 2,200 controllers are sergeants in the air force, with another 550 or so civilians also under air force command.

Sergeants get a monthly wage of between R$1,700 and R$4,600 (US$2,300, €1,700, £1,150) and, according to Mr Pereira da Silva, civil operators earn between R$1,650 and R$3,154. Pilots, by comparison, earn R$12,000 to R$15,000 a month.

“The main problem is that there is no oversight,” says Marc Baumgartner, president of the IFATC, which represents 50,000 air traffic controllers around the world.

“The limit of safety is constantly being overrun, and that’s scary. The public is paying for a level of safety and it’s being cheated by the government.”

The problems in Brazil “are mostly to do with governance,” says Alexander ter Kuile, secretary general of CANSO, which represents air navigation service providers worldwide.

“Around the world,” he says, “we have seen issues where systems are under military or full government control.” While reluctant to single out Brazil, he says that across Latin America, “states are deficient in oversight and in their ability to check that service provision is adequate”.

While expanding its current expenditure, especially on the public service payroll, the government has been cutting investment to meet its budget targets. And while the passenger terminals at many of Brazil’s airports have recently undergone extravagant facelifts, operational infrastructure has deteriorated.

Congress authorised spending of R$550m on air traffic control this year. During the first quarter, at the height of the crisis, just R$7m was spent, according to Contas Abertas, a non-governmental organisation that monitors public spending. Mr Pereira da Silva says that, far from addressing the problem, Brazil’s authorities have refused even to identify it. “When the accident happened last year,” he says, “we asked for a full, independent audit, without air force participation, so that we would at least have some evidence of what was wrong”.

Instead, government working groups have presented broad-brush solutions that include meeting the operators’ main demand that the service be transferred from military to civilian control.

Yet until that happens, the air traffic controllers find themselves in limbo. Last year the government sent the minister of labour to negotiate with them, breaking military hierarchy and tacitly acknowledging that the service requires civil rather than military conditions and solutions.

When the controllers went on strike on Friday, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who heard the news in mid-air on his way to Washington, ordered that their demands be met. In terms of air traffic control, he pointed out, Brazil was like a football team with no reserves. The controllers were assured they would not be punished, demilitarisation would go ahead at full speed, and their pay would be reviewed.

But the government has since gone back on its word. Mr Lula da Silva says he was “betrayed” by the controllers and the agreement is not valid. The 200 strikers now face imprisonment for mutiny and their civilian colleagues say more strikes are on the way.

“We are very worried by the contradictory signals being sent out by the president,” says Mr Baumgartner at the IFATC. “Nothing is being done about the root causes and that is not good for the safety of the travelling public.”

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