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Brazil Aviation Chief Fired

By ALAN CLENDENNING
The Associated Press
Wednesday, July 25, 2007; 10:50 PM

SAO PAULO, Brazil -- Brazil's president fired his defense minister Wednesday in response to a fatal jetliner crash that turned months of anger over breakdowns in the military-run national air system into a full-blown political crisis.

Defense Minister Waldir Pires was under withering criticism for not fixing the system even before the TAM Linhas Aereas SA jet crashed last week at Sao Paulo's main Congonhas airport, killing 199 people.

His replacement, former Supreme Court President Nelson Jobim, now must make good on President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's promise of a thorough investigation, new safety measures and a third airport to serve Sao Paulo, a booming city of 18 million people.

"It's no secret to any Brazilian that we have an aviation crisis," Silva said at Jobim's swearing-in, vowing to do whatever it took to resolve the situation.

He acknowledged feeling anxiety about flying in general. "Everytime the airplane door closes, I deliver myself to God," the president said.

Pires is a veteran leftist politician and longtime friend of Silva's widely seen as a political appointee who brought little competence to the defense job.

Jobim has no prior experience in aviation but is generally seen as a tough-minded problem solver. However, his appointment also shores up the government's support from his Democratic Movement Party, a coalition ally.

The root of the aviation problem remains chronic underinvestment in radar, runways and other aspects of Brazil's infrastructure. Safety upgrades, backup systems and even training for air traffic controllers were delayed for years despite exponential growth in flights serving South America's robust economies.

Then, a September plane crash in the Amazon prompted a series of work stoppages and slowdowns by air traffic controllers protesting precarious working conditions and lack of air safety.

The resulting long lines and flight delays infuriated passengers forced to wait hours or days with little or no information. Ticket-counter revolts became routine.

The problems escalated after the crash investigation forced the closure of the main runway at Congonhas. And last weekend, an electrical failure forced radar coverage to suddenly go dark in the Amazon. U.S. flights bound for Brazil had to turn back to Miami or land in Puerto Rico and Chile.

The ripple effects stranded thousands nationwide and forced the first delays and diversions in international flights.

TAM, Brazil's No. 1 airline, canceled dozens of flights in and out of Congonhas Wednesday, all but closing the main domestic travel hub due to concerns about landing in heavy rain on a shorter backup runway.

There were at least 492 flight delays of more than one hour and 253 cancellations nationwide.

Flights from Sao Paulo to the United States, Canada and Europe were held up by a day or more.

Caught in the mess was farmer Shaun Beauclair, trying to return home to Stephens, Minn. from an agribusiness trip to northeastern Brazil. His flight from Brasilia to Sao Paulo was canceled, so he chose the most reliable alternative, a 14-hour bus trip, only to find himself in Sao Paulo at the end of a long line of foreigners still hoping for a flight out.

Around Brazil, thousands argued with airline employees about being given hotel rooms and ticket refunds. Many slept on airport floors, using luggage as pillows. Some irate passengers invaded a parked plane in the city of Fortaleza to protest.

Linda Prada, a chiropractor from San Jose, Calif., arrived in Sao Paulo from the northeastern beach city of Recife with her college-age son too late to catch her flight to Dallas.

"They gave us a room for the night after he yelled at them," Prada said as her son pushed their luggage to the American Airlines check-in counter. "It's going to be a while before I come back."

Brazil's exasperated domestic travelers have had it even worse.

Dr. Jose Tereza settled for a six-hour bus trip to his destination after waiting 16 hours in the Congonhas airport, where his flight was canceled twice. Like many Brazilians, he blamed Silva, known here as Lula, for failing to make infrastructure improvements.

His advice for foreigners planning to travel to Brazil: "The best thing is to wait a year and see if Lula dies."

© 2007 The Associated Press