Here are some findings in a critical new report-card on Brazil's air-traffic management sent to Brazilian airlines and aviation officials last month by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), whose 224 member airlines represent 94 percent of the world's passenger and cargo traffic:
--The air-traffic control system in Brazil is "unreliable, unsafe and inefficient," with negative effects not only on basic transportation, but on "opportunities for economic growth."
--Nor are things improving, given the government's failure to address political mismanagement of civilian aviation in Brazil. "The political crisis is expected to continue for some time, possibly causing further ATC [air-traffic control] problems in the near future."
--Since the Sept. 29 mid-air collision over the Amazon that killed 154 people, labor problems and other disruptions in air-traffic control have "magnified the deficiencies of the ATC system" while costing airlines "more than $70 million" because of delays and airport problems.
--"There is concern in the industry that appropriate training for air traffic, airline and airport technical support is not being provided. For example, it is apparent that Brazil will be unable to comply with ICAO-mandated [International Civil Aviation Organization] ATC English-proficiency level by next year."
--In 2006, the accident rate for Brazilian operators was 3.5 times higher than world average and 1.25 times higher than the regional rate" for Latin American countries. [My note: Brazil's accident rate -- a measure of aircraft-hull losses -- was significantly higher than the world average in each of the last five years, so the loss of the Gol 737 on Sept. 29, 2006 was not the deciding factor.]
The IATA report was not publicly released. I obtained a copy, as did some Brazilian newspapers that ran edited excerpts.
In the Aug. 15 report, the world airline trade group outlined "short-term objectives" and offered assistance to Brazilian authorities in fixing the country's air-traffic control system.
Some of the "objectives:"
--"Establish a communication link between the Ministry [the Defense Ministry, which runs aviation] and the IATA and airlines to enable collaborative decision-making process by which industry experts will meet on a monthly basis during the next 12 months."
--"Implement a contingency plan to mitigate ATC problems."
--"Resolve political-labor problems" in air traffic control.
--"Ensure that ICAO principles are applied to accident investigations without external [My note: meaning "political"] interference..."
--"Ensure that adequate air-traffic services are rendered by all area control centers, including radar surveillance, ground-to-air communications and navigational aids."
--"Achieve compliance with ICAO-mandated ATC English proficiency levels."
The Brazilian media gave the report cursory attention and focused on only a few elements. Here are some excerpts from today's Folha (translation by Richard Pedicini):
Folha de São Paulo
Brazil had, last year, 3.5 times more accidents than the world average and air traffic control harms flight safety, affirmed a report by IATA (English acronym for International Air Transport Association) to which the Folha had access.
The document was sent to the Ministry of Defense, to the airlines and to SNEA (National Airlines Syndicate) on the situation of air transport in the country. ...
Other measures indicated are the solution of the political and labor problems surrounding the air traffic controllers and the improvement of the professionals' level of proficiency in English. ...
Sought out, the Ministry of Defense made no comment.
The IATA merely reiterates -- albeit with the clout of the world's airlines behind it -- what anyone who has been seriously following this story since the Sept. 29 disaster last year knows well. Brazilian air-traffic control is in chronic disarray and disrepair.
Hobbled by poor training, miserable morale and unreliable equipment, Brazilian air traffic controllers inadvertently put those two aircraft on a collision course, and failed to take action to prevent the disaster even though it was apparent for 50 minutes before the crash that a disaster was being set in motion out over the Amazon.
We've come a long way in 11 months, it seems. At least now, the sorry state of Brazilian air-traffic control is at least acknowledged. By some.
A few days after getting out of Brazil following the Sept. 29 crash, and while involved in a media circus that enveloped me because I was the only survivor free to write and talk about what had happened, I mentioned in an interview, with CNN I think it was, that Brazil's air space over the Amazon was notoriously perilous, with air-traffic-control radar blind zones and radio-communications blackout areas. Not to mention air-traffic controllers who are poorly trained and demoralized, and in many cases unable to communicate adequately in English, the lingua franca of world aviation.
How did I know this? Well, at the jungle air strip where the seven of us who survived were held after we made an emergency landing in the damaged Legacy 600, two Brazilian military investigators who showed up as the inquiry into the crash began told me so. So did a half-dozen international pilots who fly Brazil's skies and who e mailed or phoned me after the crash.
And calls to others elicited the same information: You fly the Amazon air routes -- where traffic has been increasing sharply in recent years -- hoping that nothing gets in your way, especially in the vast stretches of rain forest between Brasilia and Manaus, where the collision occurred, because you're often simply out of contact with the ground (and the ground with you).
The reaction in Brazil to my saying this in an interview in early October frankly astonished me. You'd have thought I had accused the Brazilian Air Force, which runs all air-traffic control, of kidnapping the Lindbergh baby and selling it to drug dealers.
The mob came at me with virtual torches and pitchforks. The former Defense Minister, Wonderful Waldir Pires (since fired), denounced me personally on several occasions for my effrontery in stating what was obvious about Brazilian air-traffic control. The President, Luiz Inacio (Lucky) Lula da Silva, was reportedly furious at what he regarded as an insult to Brazil's honor.
In fact, in press interviews, Lucky Lula again invoked my alleged calumny two weeks ago, as if it were not now freely acknowledged -- even in Brazilian investigations into the crash -- that there are notorious dead zones for radar and radio communications over the Amazon, and that the Brazilian air traffic control has some ... well, issues, as the tech people say.
Meanwhile, the criminal trial continues in Sinop, a small city in the Amazon. Two American pilots and four Brazilian air traffic controllers, the designated scapegoats for this disgraceful system, remain in grave peril.