Brazilian business aviation faces a squeeze between official restrictions and unofficial competition, vying with airline traffic for limited slots at the country’s major airports and with illegal “pirate” air taxi services for customers. Hosting the World Cup soccer tournament at 12 host cities around the country in June and July served as a stress test of the country’s aviation infrastructure. Although no major problems occurred, many, including industry group ABAG, feel that business aviation was sacrificed for that apparent success–and that this does not bode well.
“The restrictions put in place for the World Cup are the sign of things to come,” ABAG director general Ricardo Nogueira told AIN. “Due to the total lack of government planning to increase the capacity of Brazilian airports, the trend is for greater restrictions on the use of these airports by general aviation–the government wants the major airports to be dedicated to commercial aviation.”
Those restrictions included requiring slots for business aviation operations at more than 20 airports at and near the host cities, when previously only a few key airports such as São Paulo Congonhas required slots. Official plans put general aviation at the bottom of the priority list in vying for slots and also last in priority for takeoff clearance after the final game.
Wide no-fly zones around stadiums, which in many cities also froze principal airports that happened to be near stadiums, were in effect for hours before and after gameplay, a prime window for business aviation and helicopter shuttles. Leading newspaper Folha de São Paulo found the six games hosted in the city’s new stadium cost the city’s helicopter operators U.S.$4.5 million in revenue.
Peak game traffic was handled by more intense use of existing facilities, rather than by expanding infrastructure. For the World Cup final, the air traffic control team was doubled, with the country’s most experienced controllers assigned. Military airfields were pressed into service for official delegations. A partnership between local firm C-Fly Aviation and Jet Aviation set up an “open-air hangar” at Rio’s Galeão International Airport, with potential to park nearly 300 business jets in a space that would normally hold 15. When larger, longer-range business jets appeared, the area was rescaled to handle them and during the final, more than 100 jets with a value of over $4 billion occupied the ramp.
Although several cities set records for air passengers and movements during peak games, for the month of June passenger numbers were up only 0.5 percent over the prior year, a contrast to strong growth during the start of the year, which is expected to total 5 to 6 percent up over 2013. More heavily dependent on business travelers than other airlines, TAM Linhas Aéreas (which shares a founder with TAM Aviação Executiva but is now a separate company) reported a drop of 5.2 percent in passengers carried in June.
The World Cup restrictions were followed by the announcement that, to allow more airlines to use Congonhas, general aviation’s four slots per hour will be cut to only two, although business aviation can still use slots that open up during the day.
Three new business aviation airports proposed near São Paulo have received licenses since the government began allowing private airports to charge for flight operations last year. But none was ready for the World Cup:
- Aerovale in Caçapava, 75 miles (107 km) from São Paulo in the direction of Rio, began paving its 5,000-foot (1,524 foot) runway in July, and should finish this month.
- The Catarina airport in São Roque received all permissions earlier this year and started construction in June with a 20-month timetable.
- The Harpia project in the city of São Paulo’s Parelheiros neighborhood is closest to the business center but has the longest path to follow, due to its location in an environmental protection area near a reservoir. A court attempt to force permissions failed in April, but a new city master plan approved in July includes a pledge to study the airport proposal, this being considered a victory for backers.
- Other business aviation airports have been proposed near Belo Horizonte and Recife, and in Cabo Frio on the coast east of Rio de Janeiro.
Airports take a long time to build, though, and the experience of the Aerovale and Catarina projects, announced as options for the World Cup and opening, respectively, two months and two years after the award announcement, emphasizes that “how long?” is a question to which civil engineers can provide only part of the answer. And even when complete, driving to Aerovale or Catarina will take an hour-and-a-half, a time span that in the air could reach most of Brazil’s population. Use of Congonhas and similarly situated central airports remains indispensable to business aviation.
A plan to increase the number of public regional airports, bringing scheduled service to smaller cities and, of course, providing more options for business aviation, was announced with fanfare in December 2012, but so far has not taken off.
Pirates and Papers
Aviation charter professionals have long complained of the lax oversight of “pirate” air taxis. The problem is not confined to the piston-powered planes that connect the vast areas of forest and farmland in the country’s north and center-west: many helicopters that ferry multiple loads to São Paulo’s Formula One race are not licensed for commercial charters. The night of the World Cup final, Brazil’s most watched TV show, Globo network’s “Fantástico,” showed a segment on pirate air taxis, a breakthrough to broaden public awareness.
On that show, aviation lawyer Georges Ferreira said, “An air taxi company has to meet exactly the same requirements as an airline. We need to have a training program for every pilot, for each kind of aircraft.” AIN has heard repeated complaints at business aviation industry gatherings that ANAC (Brazil’s National Civil Aviation Agency) makes the same demands of general aviation firms as it does of airlines, requiring the same 27-volume set of manuals for a pair of Caravans as it does for an Airbus fleet. But while the demands may be the same, when the paperwork needs to be approved so that the Caravans can fly, owners say that ANAC often does not have the manpower to inspect the air taxi firm as quickly as it does an airline.
This can cause double standards. For example, Ferreira got a federal injunction lifting ANAC’s suspension of air-taxi firm Fretax, when the judge agreed the firm suffered unreasonably from ANAC’s delay.
Last in Line
Brazil’s aviation sector passed the stress test of the 2014 World Cup, finding room for commercial aviation, teams, heads of state, charter flights and business aviation. But the calm was maintained in part by a reduction of normal traffic as business passengers avoided traveling during the tournament, and except for a very few games, traffic was no higher than experienced every year a Carnival time. If commercial air traffic continues to grow, and infrastructure continues to fail to keep up, someone is going to get squeezed. And as the rules for the World Cup made clear, business aviation has the lowest priority.