18 July 2007

Sao Paulo's Congonhas airport - comment

Having flown into this airport frequently (and its corresponding short runway counterpart in Rio) I can personally attest to the scary nature of the experience. The airport is tiny in comparison to other facilities. Given the significant daily traffic not just on the Rio - Sao Paolo run but also flights from there to many other places the location was a major factor in this tragic accident.

I will also however suggest partial culpability at several doors.

Whatever the actual reason for the accident we can say without a doubt that there is more than one issue at stake here. Due to the nature of the Brazilian market it is unlikely that this will ever come out as part of any official investigation.

1. The airport which sits on a small plateau is surrounded by dense population. This would not be tolerated in many other cities. Some of the housing may not be legal. A slum in Brazil (Favella) is not the same as we might expect, speaking from a Non-Brazilian point of view. Hundreds of thousands of people live in these makeshift cities in both Rio and Sao Paolo.
2. The only way to land is to slam the aircraft down on the runway and full thrust reversers and braking to slow the aircraft down. For a fully loaded A320 this is no small feat. Even 737s (Gol and Varig) and F100s (TAM) (the other jets that use the airport) have a hard time with this. There is little to no margin for error.
2. The pilots who fly the shuttle routes are highly competent and used to the "normal" conditions. This was far from normal having been one of the wettest winters in memory.
3. The runway had been repaved but not re-grooved
4. There had been a court case in which a judge had ruled that the airport was safe under pressure from the official bodies.
5. At least once in the preceding months since the runway re-surfacing had a pilot complained of the danger in the runway condition
6. Infraero - the former military organization charged with the infrastructure of the airports in Brazil and its counterpart ANAC http://www.infraero.gov.br/, http://www.anac.gov.br/ respectively are both politically influenced organizations.
7. TAM has been aggressively growing (as has GOL and others) without much check. The aggressive expansion has occurred at a time when the former national carrier VARIG went into deep decline (now only handling less than 3% of the total traffic) and when the air traffic control system was shown to be severely lacking. (See GOL midair collision).
8. TAM has had a poor record of safety particularly with its F100 aircraft. Even Wikipedia doesn’t log all of the accidents. In addition its hero Rolim Amaro was himself killed in a TAM Helicopter crash.

Enough guilt and blame to go round. Our thoughts and prayers are for the victims and their families. Let’s hope that this is a catalyst to cause reform and better oversight by the authorities. Brazil is a great country. its people are some of the nicest you can hope to meet. Let’s hope for the best for them

Timothy J O'Neil-Dunne
Managing Partner - T2Impact Ltd
Global Travel eBusiness
Tel (US) +1 425 836 4770
Mobile (US) +1 425 785 4457
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Our thoughts and prayers go

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