Brazil, Argentina Faulted on Air Safety

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 20, 2007

BUENOS AIRES, May 19 -- Pilots and air traffic controllers have warned that shoddy safety systems could be putting passengers at risk in South America's two largest countries, prompting an international outcry for rapid overhauls of the organizations that manage air transit in Argentina and Brazil.

Increased air traffic at major airports in both countries has not resulted in corresponding upgrades of infrastructure or additional staffing, according to organizations representing thousands of pilots and air traffic controllers worldwide. The result, they say, is confusion above some of the region's most visited cities.

In Buenos Aires, for example, the only certified, long-range radar in Argentina was struck by lightning March 1 and has not been replaced, forcing air traffic controllers to manually guide aircraft -- a task some controllers say they have not been adequately trained to handle. Five "near misses" have occurred since the radar outage, according to Argentina's Airline Pilots Association.

Brazil's air traffic systems have been under scrutiny since a commercial airliner collided with a private plane over the Amazon rain forest last fall, killing all 154 aboard the airliner. Earlier this year, the Washington-based International Airline Pilots Association cautioned pilots to take special care when flying in Brazil, citing a "lack of proper governmental oversight and control" of air traffic. Since then, Brazil's air traffic controllers have instituted several work slowdowns to protest staffing shortages in a country where domestic air traffic has increased by 49 percent in the past five years, according to the country's airport authority.

The tone of the recent flurry of warnings by aviation groups has been unusually strident, according to air safety experts.

"I cannot recall -- at least in recent memory -- alerts that have been as pointed as the these concerning Argentina and Brazil," said William Voss, president of the Arlington-based Flight Safety Foundation and former head of navigation safety for the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Argentina's radar problem has provoked the loudest calls for action. Although manually guiding aircraft landings is still standard procedure in many parts of the world -- including large parts of Russia and China -- it is less common in major urban centers. It also requires staff to be specially trained and the rate of air traffic to be reduced, said Marc Baumgartner, president of the International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers' Associations.

Asking controllers to abruptly switch from radar-guided direction to manual methods without properly training them is, he said, "like asking the check-in agent to fly the aircraft."

"The controllers are overwhelmed by the task," said Baumgartner, who is based in Geneva. "What they are doing is asking aircraft to turn 100 miles before the landing and wait there at altitudes of 10 kilometers [6.2 miles], which is absolutely unknown in aviation. If it continues like this, we fear there will be a serious accident."

Argentina's Ministry of Defense, which oversees all air traffic control, continues to play down such fears. Defense Minister Nilda Garré said Thursday that Spain plans to lend a radar system to Argentina until it installs a permanent replacement later this year.

The government has also questioned whether some of the five close calls reported by local pilots in the past two months actually happened. One union representing pilots from the Argentine airline Austral also has suggested that some of the incidents had been exaggerated and that the planes were not close to colliding.

Those denials infuriate Enrique Piñeyro, whose 2006 documentary, "Air Force, Incorporated," detailed numerous flaws in Argentina's air traffic control system. One day after the documentary hit theaters here, President Néstor Kirchner announced that he would replace military oversight of air traffic with civilian control. The switchover still hasn't happened, though officials promise it will in the coming months.

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