ExcelAire pilots return home; Brazil bizav still feels the heat

 - December 20, 2006, 6:25 AM

Joseph Lepore and Jan Paladino, the pilot and copilot of the ExcelAire Legacy 600 involved in a midair with a Boeing 737 operated by Brazil’s Gol on September 29, returned to New York on December 9. Brazilian authorities confiscated their passports after the accident. The two pilots were allowed to leave Brazil only after their attorney in Brazil successfully filed for habeas corpus. The pilots signed documents promising that they will return to Brazil if necessary as part of the ongoing investigation.

Brazil’s Federal Police charged the two pilots with endangering air safety. At press time no one else had been indicted, but local media sources reported that federal prosecutors are considering charging at least two air traffic controllers in the case.
Even if the two pilots are found guilty of a crime, it is unlikely that they will face jail time. While the sentence for endangering air safety carries a prison sentence of two to six years, sentences in similar cases have been converted into community service. Furthermore, given agreements between the U.S. and Brazil, the pilots would be allowed to serve their sentences in the U.S.

Despite the unlikelihood of the pilots’ serving jail time, the indictment has prompted a storm of criticism. Lawyers representing the pilots in Brazil condemned the indictment, claiming that the American pilots were being singled out and that other groups involved in the accident had not been charged.

Similarly, Brazil’s National Pilots Union (SNA) condemned the decision in a recent congressional hearing. The head of SNA called for legislation that would prohibit charging pilots in the case of accidents. The union expressed its concern that the decision could compromise future investigations, inquiries that should serve to help authorities prevent future accidents.

Leaders of several aviation organizations have repeatedly demanded that criminal inquiries not be made a part of the investigation.

The accident has sparked a crisis at Brazilian airports, as air traffic controllers stage a series of work slowdowns to protest poor working conditions and lack of investment in the sector. The action has prompted lengthy delays and the cancellation of numerous flights.

The ATC crisis has had the biggest effect on the business aviation sector. Since late October, Brazil’s National Aviation Agency has grounded business aviation flights at peak times. At press time no business aviation flights were allowed to fly between 7:30 a.m. and noon and 5 p.m. and 8 p.m.

“The measure has had a tremendous impact on business aviation,” said Adalberto Febeliano, vice president of ABAG, the Brazilian business aviation association. He said that many companies are having a hard time operating, adding, “The measure has made many flights, especially long-distance flights, impossible. It also took away the main advantage of business aviation–its flexibility.

“We regret that authorities have singled out one sector,” he said, adding that the measure has not alleviated the delays that airline flights are currently facing.