Aviation in Brazil is still feeling fallout from midair

 - March 7, 2007, 12:29 PM

The investigation into the causes of the midair between a Gol Boeing 737 and an Embraer Legacy operated by Long Island-based ExcelAire last September 29 is likely to continue through the end of the year. Despite the fact that the investigation is not yet complete, a spokesperson for Brazil’s Federal Police said last month that local air traffic controllers will be held partially responsible for the accident, sharing the blame with ExcelAire pilots Joseph Lepore and Jan Paladino, who were accused of endangering air safety.

If the federal police accuse the air traffic controllers, it will be up to the Brazilian military to decide if they will be prosecuted.

In January, the Brazilian press published sections of the transcript of the conversation between the two Legacy pilots. Brazilian sources say the transcript shows that the Legacy’s TCAS was not operating at the time of the collision.

In a statement, ExcelAire asserted that “its pilots did not intentionally or inadvertently disengage the Legacy’s transponder or TCAS and that there was no indication in the cockpit at any time during the flight that the transponder or TCAS were not operational.”

National Airports Affected
The midair has precipitated chaos in Brazil’s airspace in recent months. According to a report by Fitch Ratings, the accident highlighted a deeper problem in the air traffic system and underscored the need for greater investment in infrastructure.

He added that the increase in the number of passengers–18 percent per year over the past three years–without equivalent investment has created bottlenecks at important hubs such as Brasilia, Belo Horizonte, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Continued growth in the sector will be possible only with profound changes in airport management and increased investment in the sector. Fitch warned that short-term, palliative measures will not be enough to alleviate the crisis.

The International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers Associations concluded that the accident was a result of “unacceptable systems traps” brought on by non-error-tolerant and poorly designed air traffic control systems and flight equipment. The association concluded that the software of Brasilia ATC is badly designed and a major contributor to an unsafe and dangerous system.

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) echoed these sentiments, issuing a statement cautioning pilots about certain aspects of operating in Brazilian airspace. ALPA said that all pilots should maintain a “high level of situational awareness while operating into or within the Brazilian Flight Identification Regions.” The association added that ATC methods used in Brazilian airspace might be different from those used in other parts of the world. ALPA recommended that pilots do not assume that controllers are fully aware of any changes made to the flight plan.

The government recently announced that it had earmarked R$3 billion ($1.43 billion) for the sector as part of the four-year growth acceleration package, but Brazil’s airport management company, Infraero, said it needs twice that much. The goal is to expand passenger capacity at Brazil’s 20 airports by 40.3 million people from its current 118 million annually.

Business Aviation Also Pays
The Brazilian business aviation sector has been especially hard hit by the recent crisis. Since late October, Brazil’s National Aviation Agency (ANAC) has grounded business aviation operators at peak flight times. Business aviation flights are not allowed between 7:30 a.m. and noon and 5 p.m. and 8 p.m.

The restrictions have resulted in business charter operators losing customers, according to José Eduardo Brandão, director of OceanAir Taxi Aeréo. He added that the restrictions have caused the company’s clients to miss important meetings. “Brazil’s aviation infrastructure needs to be revised…we need more airports and we need more controllers, but this will take time,” he said.

He noted that the crisis in the country’s air traffic system comes at an inopportune time. “Business aviation is on the rise. We are selling more aircraft than ever and light jets are going to start arriving. This will only further overwhelm air traffic controllers,” he concluded. His company had a record year last year, with sales of more than $200 million.

Rui Aquino, president of TAM Taxi Aeréo, expressed the same sentiment. “Infrastructure has simply not grown at the same rate as aviation,” he said.
Other companies also had record sales last year. Líder Aviação, Brazil’s largest executive aviation company, sold 26 aircraft, a 15-percent increase over the previous year.

Given current conditions, it remains unclear whether Brazil’s infrastructure will be able to support the increase in business aviation sales.