Brazil: Worst Air Crash in Brazilian History Severely Aggravates Aviation Crisis, Forces Defense Minister to Step Down

NotiSur - South American Political and Economic Affairs, August 3, 2007 | Go to article overview

Brazil: Worst Air Crash in Brazilian History Severely Aggravates Aviation Crisis, Forces Defense Minister to Step Down


Brazil's aviation crisis became even worse with the deadliest crash in the country's history on July 17 when a plane sped off a runway and into a building. The government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has come under intense criticism over the poor state of the country's airline system, with massive delays, safety concerns, and chronic congestion. Lula replaced his defense minister, the top official in charge of civil aviation, after the crash. The crash in Sao Paulo came after what had previously been the worst disaster in Brazilian aviation, a Sept. 29, 2006, crash between two jets in the Amazon, leaving 154 dead. The air travel system had already been in crisis as passengers faced long delays and cancellations, a situation that was badly aggravated after the July 17 crash.

Congonhas crash kills almost 200, 2006 crash kills 154

On the evening of July 17, TAM Airlines flight number 3054 failed to decelerate when it landed on the main runway of Congonhas airport in southern Sao Paulo. The plane veered off the runway and hit a TAM Express building and exploded in flames, killing all 187 people aboard the plane and another 12 people in the building. The runway was wet and slippery because of rain, and the plane, an Airbus A320, shot across the runway much more quickly than normal.

Witness Junior Matos said, "The plane accelerated when it reached the end of the runway and tried to take off again to avoid the road." Later reports have contradicted that view.

There had been prior complaints about how short the Congonhas runway is and its proximity to urban structures, and Congonhas airport had long been operating over capacity. In February, amid fears that the airport was too close to residential areas and that its runways were indeed too short, a federal court briefly banned three types of large jet--the Fokker 100, Boeing 737-800 and Boeing 737-700--from using the airport. The decision was overturned, but officials ordered that the runway be resurfaced--which happened in June.

But Brazil's airport authority said work to groove the runway, to help clear rain water, was not scheduled to take place until July 28, after the concrete had settled. On July 18, Armando Schneider Filho, director of engineering for the nation's airport authority Infraero, said it met international safety standards.

"I can confirm that there was no possibility of skidding on this runway. Twenty minutes before the accident, Infraero performed a visual inspection of the runway and detected no problems. It was wet, but there was no accumulation of water," he told a news conference.

On July 16, two other, smaller planes skidded off the airport's runway. Opposition politicians attacked the decision to use the runway before the grooving work was done.

Most of the passengers and crew on board TAM flight 3054 were Brazilian, including an opposition Congress member, Julio Redecker of the Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (PSDB). There were also two French nationals, an Argentine and a Peruvian.

Brazilian opposition lawmakers have attacked the government's management of the air travel system since September, when a passenger plane operated by Gol Linhas Aereas Inteligentes SA collided over the Amazon with a business jet owned by a US company, killing 154 people. The smaller aircraft was able to land safely, but the passenger plane crashed in the Amazon, killing all aboard. The role that air traffic controllers played in the disaster is still under investigation.

Prosecutors have sought to charge the two US pilots of the business jet in Brazil's courts. A Brazilian judge indicted four flight controllers and the smaller jet's two US pilots on the equivalent of manslaughter charges, but the defendants point to other problems, from holes in radar coverage to the inability of some Brazilian controllers to clearly speak English, the language of international aviation. …

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