Brazil has more problems with flights after president unveils new safety plans

Sunday, July 22, 2007

At least six planes were forced to return to their points of origin or make unscheduled landings.

SAO PAULO, Brazil -- A radar failure over the Amazon forced Brazil to turn back or ground a string of international flights Saturday, deepening a national aviation crisis just hours after the president unveiled safety measures prompted by the country's deadliest air disaster.

Further shaking Brazilians' confidence, authorities announced that they had mistaken a piece of the fuselage from Tuesday's accident for the flight recorder and sent it to a laboratory for analysis.

The as-yet-unexplained radar outage, from around midnight until 2:30 a.m., forced at least six planes to return to their points of origin or make unscheduled landings at other airports.

"This is total chaos here. I have never seen anything like [it], and it makes me feel very unsafe," said Eli Rocha, 52, of Oklahoma City, who was trying to head to Dallas with his 12-year-old son. He was delayed at Sao Paulo's international airport Saturday amid scores of passengers arriving from the United States after hours of delays.

The confusion followed a nationally televised speech by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who tried to calm the nation Friday night by announcing new safety measures and saying authorities will build a new airport in Sao Paulo, where an Airbus A320 operated by Tam Airlines crashed, killing 191 people.

All 187 people aboard and at least four on the ground died when the jetliner raced down the runway, skipped over a crowded highway and exploded in a fireball that was still smoldering three days later.

Silva's speech Friday night was his first public pronouncement about the crash except for a brief statement.

"Our aviation system, in spite of the investments we have made in expansion and modernization of almost all Brazilian airports, is passing through difficulties," Silva said. "The security of our aviation system is compatible with all the international standards. We cannot lose sight of this."

Silva said aviation officials will limit the number of flights and restrict the weight of planes traveling into Congonhas airport, where Tuesday's accident occurred, and that the location of the new airport will be chosen within 90 days.

But Sao Paulo's Mayor Gilberto Kassab told reporters Saturday that building a new airport, which could take between five and 10 years, was not a priority for the city, which would instead seek to claim houses around Congonhas airport as eminent domain in order to lengthen runways.

Congonhas, the nation's busiest airport, is in the heart of Sao Paulo and its short runway has been flagged a likely factor in the crash.

Also Saturday, officials said they had mistakenly sent part of the plane's fuselage to the United States, thinking it was the flight recorder.

Gen. Jorge Kersul Filho, head of the air force's accident prevention division, told reporters in Sao Paulo the real flight recorder had been located early Saturday in the wreckage and would be sent to Washington later in the day for analysis.

The radar failure caused at least four American Airlines flights headed to Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo to return to Miami International airport, said Marc Henderson, a spokesman for the Miami International airport.

Two American Airlines flights headed from Sao Paulo to Miami were also affected by the radar failure and made unscheduled landings in the jungle city of Manaus, said Celso Gick, a spokesman for Brazilian airport authority Infraero.

Jose dos Santos, a 43-year-old cafe owner, was aboard Delta Flight 121 when the crew announced Brazil was not letting airplanes enter their airspace because of the radar failure.

"I was saying, 'Oh my God! My life is over.' I was in a panic. All I could think about was the Gol jet that crashed in Amazon last year," Santos said, referring to the September crash of a Gol Airlines Boeing 737 over the rain forest, which killed all 154 people aboard.

Santos' Delta flight had to land for refueling and the flight scheduled to arrive at 8 a.m. only arrived in Sao Paulo at 12:30 p.m., he said.

Other passengers were not so lucky.

An American airlines flights from Dallas and New York were expected to be delayed 18 and 11 hours respectively.

September's Gol crash in the Amazon was the country's worst air disaster until Tuesday's accident and it exposed widespread problems with the country's air traffic control system.

It also touched off months of work slowdowns by air traffic controllers protesting precarious working conditions. Congressional investigations turned up holes in the country's radar coverage; antiquated equipment and flight controllers with only rudimentary knowledge of English.

Brazilian, French and U.S. investigators say it is too early to determine the cause of Tuesday's crash. Analysis of the recorded cockpit conversations is not expected until next week.

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