The World's Worst Airline

By Elizabeth Spiers
Sunday, July 22, 2007

TAM Linhas Aereas is the worst airline in the world. I've been saying that since early April, when my boyfriend and I took a short vacation in Brazil and returned happy with our stay but traumatized by the air travel. So last week when a TAM Airbus 320 on an inbound domestic route skidded off the Sao Paulo airport runway, tried to take off again, and crashed into a cargo building owned by the same carrier, exploding on impact and incinerating nearly 200 people, I felt angrily (and okay, smugly) justified in my condemnation.

It's not entirely TAM's fault that it's a terrible airline; it's also Brazil's fault. And this crash illustrates why.

We flew TAM from New York to Sao Paulo and then to Manaus, back to Sao Paulo then to Rio de Janeiro, back to Sao Paulo again, then back to New York, all in the space of nine days. Every flight was delayed by hours or canceled. My boyfriend, who has been a travel writer for more than 15 years and has landed on runways consisting mostly of grass, with a cinderblock terminal building and the local welcoming party covered in nothing but mud and chicken feathers, also insists that TAM provided the worst air travel he has ever experienced.

Some of the delays were bureaucratic and intrinsic to TAM, but many of them were intrinsic to the state-run airports. It's difficult to manage foot traffic in relatively small terminals that were not designed to handle a large number of travelers.

In many cases, the semblance of order was considered just as good as actual order, and the most obvious manifestation of this pseudo-organization is the creation of neat rows of people. Passengers are kept in line, literally and figuratively. For us, this often meant standing in line for an hour in order to be allowed to stand in another line, which in turn led to another line, which was, if we were lucky, the ticketing line. Then there was the security line, the boarding line and sometimes another security line, in case the first one missed the inevitable bottle of breast milk or tube of hair gel a would-be terrorist might use to hijack a plane.

Standing in line was second only to waiting while receiving no new information as the quintessential experience of Brazilian air travel. After finally boarding a flight from Manaus to Sao Paulo, we sat for several hours and were served dinner by the flight crew. Perhaps because flight officials feared an overnight stay on the Manaus runway, we were told to disembark because the flight was canceled. More than an hour later, the luggage arrived.

Not content to leave the airport without one last episode of standing in line, we waited to get vouchers for the designated hotel, the Taj Mahal, which in giant gold letters affixed to the entrance declared itself a five-star establishment and featured a revolving rooftop restaurant with an Astroturf floor and a view of Manaus's more colorful trash bins. After our scenic breakfast the next morning, we arrived several hours early at the airport, stood in line for the requisite half a day and waited expectantly to be told that our flight was delayed. We were not disappointed.

As we watched customers scrambling between the gate for Buenos Aires (marked "New York") and the gate for New York (marked "Buenos Aires"), it was unsurprising to find a woman in front of us in the middle of a nervous breakdown, screaming at a TAM attendant and crying hysterically. It was very surprising to find that no one else was screaming.

The larger problems can be attributed to the constraints under which Brazil forces TAM to operate. Nearly every flight to a major Brazilian city from a major metropolitan area is compulsively routed through the largest city in the country. If you want to fly direct, it probably won't be on a Brazilian carrier. As it happens, the largest city's airport has the most infamously short runway. The runway at Sao Paulo is 6,362 feet long -- 641 feet shorter than that of La Guardia and too short for the pilot of TAM Flight 3054 to land safely on a wet surface, which caused him to try to take off again, with catastrophic results.

This is normal procedure in Sao Paulo. Pilots are instructed to do it when the allotted stretch of runway won't suffice. To add to the risk, the runway was repaved in June, which may have resulted in the already dangerously short stretch being dangerously slippery as well.

If you manage to make it safely onto or off the runway, you still have to contend with Brazilian air-traffic control, which is run by the Brazilian military, an increasingly disenfranchised institution that has resisted transition to civilian control -- perhaps because in peacetime, it needs reasons to justify its existence. Air traffic infrastructure is woefully out of date; upgrading it, while ultimately necessary, is considered too expensive. The consequences of Brazil's patchy radar system were particularly apparent in September when a Boeing 737 operated by another major Brazilian airline hit a private jet over part of the Amazon, with 154 casualties -- an event that led air-traffic controllers to strike, saying they were being unfairly blamed.

The alternative would be to force Brazilian air travel to conform to the limitations of the country's existing infrastructure. This would mean scheduling fewer flights, which would result in less revenue from tourism, which is increasingly responsible for the country's economic growth. State officials are not willing to do this, either.

As long as the Sao Paulo runway remains too short, the air-traffic controllers remain underpaid and poorly equipped, the market remains uncompetitive, and state officials remain in denial about the inevitability of more accidents stemming from overcapacity in an already strained system, the likelihood that last week's accident won't be (as news reports called it) "the country's worst air disaster" will only increase. And however gorgeous Brazil is, I won't be heading back anytime soon.

Elizabeth Spiers is a writer who lives in New York.

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