Friday, December 08, 2006

Brazilian Flight 1907, American Pilots, and Labor Issues

For those who remember (or knew at all), a Brazilian plane crashed here in late-September, killing all 150+ people on board. It quickly became a controversial case when it was revealed that a private jet chartered by an American company and flown by two American pilots had clipped the plane when the private jet was flying at the wrong altitude, leading to Gol Flight 1907's crash (nobody in the private jet was hurt). Today, the American pilots were (to me, somewhat surprisingly) charged in the crash, facing up to 12 years in prison each. The case came to a head this week when the federal courts ruled Brazil's police had to come to a decision by today and give the Americans their passports back (police had been detaining the pilots under house arrest with no charges, which the courts ruled had to end by today). This has picked up some interest in the states, simply for the tragically strange nature of the crash (one jet completely destroyed, the other merely losing the top part of a rear wing) and for the fact that it's Americans who may have been responsible.

However, it has been far more controversial here in Brazil. Since about two weeks after the crash, when the military began releasing the transcripts of the crash and information about it (unlike the independent FAA, which is responsible to the public in the states, the Air Force oversees air accidents here, and the process is a bit more veiled and slow-moving), analysts and the press have been claiming effectively that, if any fault is to be borne, it is on the air traffic controllers, who never told the private jet to return to the altitude it should have been at (37,000 feet, instead of the 36,000 feet it was at when it hit flight 1907).

However, the air traffic control has not taken kindly to this. Controllers have complained that they are understaffed and overworked (a claim similar to claims maid in the crash that happened in Kentucky earlier this summer). Their response has been to stage periodic "slowdown strikes" that have effectively crippled transportation in Brazil. For the last 2 and a half months, now, flights have been irregular. Some days, flights go normally, without any trouble at all. Other days, planes are "strangely" slowed down, departing sometimes later than 2 hours late (one day in October, when the issue was initially coming to a head, the slowdown led to 10-hour-late departures and the grounding of all private jets as commercial flights took priority). The issue isn't getting any better, either. Neither the press, analysts, nor the government have stopped saying that (despite the charges of the police today) the onus of the crash still rests pretty heavily on controllers. The controllers have not let up, either. This Tuesday, all flights were cancelled as the communications system strangely lost power after an incident with fiberoptics cables, an incident that now appears to have been sabotage.

Some relief could be coming, as there are supposed to be 60 new controllers added to Brazil's airport system, but this will still take time, as controllers must be trained, and the slowdowns can and probably will still happen (unfortunately, as I plan on flying to Brasília over the holidays). However, it reveals the way in which this particular plane crash goes beyond the loss of life and the arrest of the American pilots (the only component covered in the American press), revealing some major labor issues in Brazil.