Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Thoughts on the Brazil Air Tragedy in Sao Paulo

The sadness of this is beyond belief, for certain. Flags here in Brasilia (including other nations' flags at hotels) are at half-staff, and the country is shocked at what is now its worst air disaster in history. Unfortunately, the sadness is only heightened by a number of factors.

-Reports at this moment in both the US and in Brazil (which can and will change at least somewhat as the investigation goes on) say that the pilot was unable to land and tried to take off again, slamming into the building. No word (and probably not for weeks) what combination of pilot error (if any), airplane malfunction (if any), and weather played.

-Regardless of whether this was pilot error or what, the fact that Congonhas airport (the domestic airport in Sao Paulo) continues operating is absolutely inexcusable. Pilots have been complaining about the runway since the 1980s, with the runways being closed last year (aiding to slowdowns in Brazil) to resurface them. In this regard, every president from that point to yesterday deserves blame for ignoring the problem. Lula at least initiated runway improvements recently. However, whether it was his decision or somebody else's, the runways were opened before resurfacing was finished. The grooves in the runways that help traction and drainage of rain had not yet been finished, yet the airport was still running in the name of "business". There is no good excuse for this, period. If the runways aren't ready, you do not fly, it does not matter if your company will lose millions of dollars waiting. You. Just. Don't. Do. It. It doesn't even matter if the pilot did or did not manage to land yesterday (still not clear), for even on Monday, another plane landing in the rain temporarily lost control and slid in the rain. This is just egregious and vulgar, and I understand the arguments of what that would have done to air travel in Brazil, but it doesn't matter.

-Congonhas is itself a terrible airport. While the structure is fine (they just finished rennovating the terminal, which is gaining its own criticism, given that the runway, and not the terminal, was what was posing the real danger), the location is the worst I've ever seen. Congonhas was built in 1919, far from Sao Paulo, but the city totally swallowed it decades ago. Why whatever governor did not say, "Hey, we should go ahead and block off some land from development around the city," I'll never know (well, I know - "Development" and "business" are the probable reasons, but that doesn't excuse anything). I happened to fly in and out of Congonhas on Sunday with my connection to Brasilia, and it was, to put it simply, terrifying. We kept getting lower, and lower, and lower, to the point you could see IN some of the apartment buildings, before we FINALLY were over the runway RIGHT before touching down. Upon landing, we continued going faster than any landing I've endured before, and I even thought, "Um, shouldn't we be slowing down?" Takeoff is no better. The takeoff was the fastest I've ever been on, and immediately on takeoff, we banked so far starboard to reach our flight path, I thought, "should we be at this angle?" Planes have had troubles before, most memorably when a plane went down in a neighborhood in 1996, killing 100. Once was bad enough, but twice is awful. Congonhas absolutely has no excuse to remain open, unless the city government actively razes the neighborhoods nearby (unlikely, given they are middle- and upper-class residences). The federal government spokesman last night said he wouldn't rule out that Congonhas permanently closes. That would be the best for Brazil. It doesn't matter if flights get backed up and screwy and delayed for years to come while they build a new (second - there is already the international airport, Garulhos) far away from neighborhoods. Brazil can't afford to have this happen a third time.

-There's no good time for such a thing as this, but the sadness is heightened by the fact that, until yesterday, the country was still celebrating the successful hosting of the Pan-American games (with Brazil 2nd overall with 38 medals). However, all of that has (rightfully) faded away in the wake of the disaster. Still, the mood swing from extreme happiness and pride to extreme devastation is pretty much palpable in the media and among those I've talked to.

The tragedy is awful, and one can only imagine the pain for family, friends, and co-workers (some of the victims were in the buildings or in cars on the avenue the plane crossed) must be enduring. The only thing one can hope is that people not only learn, but apply, lessons from this.