Thu, Dec 07, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Communications breakdown leads to air chaos in Brazil

AP , SAO PAULO, BRAZIL

Virtually all takeoffs from three major airports in Brazil were canceled on Tuesday night after an air traffic communications system broke down, making it difficult for controllers to communicate with pilots and creating air travel chaos.

Brazil's Civil Aviation Authority said in a statement that takeoffs were banned at the airport in the capital of Brasilia and in the large central city of Belo Horizonte. Many takeoffs were also canceled at the airport in Sao Paulo that handles domestic flights, though the authority allowed flights to continue on the busy Sao Paulo-Rio de Janeiro shuttle route.

Authorities were still allowing planes to land at the three airports and almost all international flights departing Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest city, take off from a separate airport unaffected by the government order. But the Belo Horizonte and Brasilia airports also serve some international destinations, and all takeoffs were prohibited from those airports.

The problem emerged when a communications system in Brasilia inexplicably broke down, reducing the number of radio frequencies and making it hard for controllers to reach pilots flying commercial jets in some of Brazil's busiest air traffic corridors, the government's Agencia Brasil news agency reported.

Federal police discounted the possibility of sabotage, saying the problem appeared to be technical and that they would only investigate if asked by Brazil's military, which runs the air traffic control system in Latin America's largest country, Brazil's Agencia Estado news agency reported.

The breakdown initially caused huge delays on Tuesday morning, prompting passengers to sleep on airport floors. Authorities decided later to cancel the takeoffs at the three airports until the communications system is repaired.

The aviation authority said the system could be repaired by yesterday, but warned travelers to check on flights with airlines and acknowledged that the incident was Brazil's most disruptive air traffic communications failure in history.

"There has never been a collapse like this," Milton Zuanazzi, who heads the aviation authority, told the Web site of the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper, Brazil's largest.

It also came as most air travelers in Brazil have had to put up with more than a month of serious flight delays sparked by a job protest by controllers.

Following Brazil's worst-ever air crash disaster, the controllers began following regulations to the letter in a protest that significantly slowed operations and is having a financial impact on Brazilian airlines.

Under the "work to rule" campaign, they have refused to handle more than the limit of flights recommended under international standards and are strictly observing times between landings and takeoffs. The protest came amid complaints that Brazilian controllers are overworked, underpaid and understaffed despite strong commercial flight growth in recent years.

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