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Brazil defense minister ousted after air crash

The president fired the defense minister Wednesday after a year of chaos in Brazil’s military-controlled aviation system, including a jetliner crash that killed nearly 200 people last week.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The president fired the defense minister Wednesday after a year of chaos in Brazil’s military-controlled aviation system, including a jetliner crash that killed nearly 200 people last week.

Defense Minister Waldir Pires came under withering criticism for problems ranging from radar outages to work slowdowns that caused dayslong delays and flight cancellations at Brazilian airports. The outrage mounted after a TAM Linhas Aereas SA jet crashed last week at São Paulo’s Congonhas airport, killing 199 people. The cause has not yet been determined.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said that Pires would be replaced by former Supreme Court president Nelson Jobim. The presidential office did not say when Pires would leave, or whether he was fired or resigned.

The disruptions ground on as TAM, the nation’s No. 1 airline, canceled dozens of flights to and from Congonhas — the country’s busiest airport — causing a ripple effect nationwide that stranded thousands and sent tempers flaring.

TAM said it made the decision for passenger safety because of concerns about landing on a short backup runway at Congonhas in heavy rain that started Monday and was predicted to last through Wednesday.

Fatal crash
The plane in July 17’s fatal accident raced off Congonhas’ 6,362-foot main runway, which is short by modern standards, before slamming into a gas station and an air cargo building. Investigators are looking at excess speed, mechanical problems and the runway as possible causes for the crash. Government officials have repeatedly denied the runway played a role.

The main runway has been closed while the crash is investigated, forcing airlines to use a 4,711-foot backup runway that further cuts the safety margin for takeoffs and landings.

TAM’s main Brazilian competitor, Gol Linhas Aereas Inteligentes SA, recommended that travelers postpone flying until Monday. “In this period, the company hopes to re-establish the normal flux of air traffic,” Gol said.

Globo TV reported a British Airways flight bound for São Paulo was diverted to Rio de Janeiro because of increased use of São Paulo’s international airport for domestic flights. After the jet landed in Rio, passengers were kept on board for hours before being allowed to get off.

To reduce the delays and cancellations, Brazil’s aviation authority has temporarily suspended all ticket sales for flights to and from Congonhas.

Of the 630 flights scheduled nationwide by late Wednesday morning, a third were delayed for more than one hour and another 121 canceled, according to the airport authority.

On Tuesday, the same safety concerns led to 590 flight cancellations and 298 delays at Congonhas, according to Infraero, the national infrastructure agency.

'This is a disgrace'
The government has announced it was temporarily halting ticket purchases for flights at Congonhas in an effort to reduce the number of delays and cancellations.

The delays also prompted TAM’s main Brazilian competitor, Gol Linhas Aereas Inteligentes SA, to recommend that its clients postpone flying until Monday.

Many passengers at Congonhas said they would try to wait out delays, but others gave up.

“This is a disgrace,” said Marcelo Viera, a chemical plant inspector who showed up five hours early for his flight to the northeastern city of Salvador and got stuck at the end of a line of 300 people.

Brazil’s air safety system “has been neglected for years, and it’s going to take years to fix,” he said.

Many critics blame da Silva’s administration for failing to invest enough in airports while the number of flights and passengers has increased dramatically.

Increasing problem
Major flight delays and cancellations have been escalating since September, when a Gol Boeing 737 collided with an executive jet and crashed in the Amazon rain forest killing 154 people. Four air traffic controllers, as well the executive jet’s two American pilots, face criminal charges in connection with that crash.

The São Paulo crash last week replaced the Amazon incident as Brazil’s deadliest commercial air accident.

TAM’s American depository shares fell 2 percent Wednesday morning on the New York Stock Exchange, increasing the company’s overall stock plunge to 21 percent since last week’s crash. Gol’s shares on the NYSE were down 2.5 percent, and the company’s stock has fallen 14 percent since the crash and the ensuing air travel crisis.

Relatives and friends of the victims gathered at Congonhas Tuesday evening for a religious ceremony to honor the dead exactly one week after the plane crashed.

“She died doing what she liked most,” Jose Roberto Silva, said of his daughter Madalena, a TAM flight attendant.

Churches in the southern cities of Porto Alegre and Curitiba — the hometowns of many of the dead — also held memorial Masses.