Mon, Jun 25, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Air travel in South America increasingly scary, chaotic


Flying through South America's busiest airports has become frightening and time-consuming for passengers and pilots alike as a surge in travelers overwhelms underfunded air traffic control systems.

The Argentine capital's main airport radar did not work properly since being struck by lightning in March, meaning jets were forced to fly under manual control, causing delays and at least two near-collisions, according to air traffic controllers.

A September crash that was Brazil's deadliest air disaster exposed other gaps, from inadequate equipment to poor training.

Angry stranded travelers have stormed airline check-in counters and runways in Brazil and fistfights have broken out in waiting areas. Controllers -- concerned about being made scapegoats -- have engaged in strikes and work slowdowns to raise safety concerns.

The problems in Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo ripple through Latin America and beyond as travelers make connecting flights. On Friday, all flights from Sao Paulo to Europe and the US were temporarily suspended due to equipment failure and another slowdown by controllers.

Brazil and Argentina acknowledge failing to make needed investments in radar for decades, even as South America's booming economies fueled growth in air travel. Foreign travelers to Buenos Aires' main international airport have more than doubled in five years to 2.1 million last year, while the number of domestic flights in Brazil has risen by 49 percent, the governments say.

The world's pilots have lobbied to solve the problems since a Boeing 737 wound up on a collision course with a small executive jet over the Amazon on Sept. 29, killing all 154 people on the passenger jet.

A Brazilian judge indicted four flight controllers and the smaller jet's two US pilots on the equivalent of manslaughter charges, but the defendants point to other problems, from holes in radar coverage to the inability of some Brazilian controllers to clearly speak English, the language of international aviation.

Meghan Bolden, a 26-year-old American studying in Buenos Aires, sweated through takeoff on her flight home to Washington.

"The pilot, who was American, got on and said we were going to be taking off manually," Bolden said. "It's like we were back in the Wright brothers era."

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