ATC in Brazil is Out of Control

By Robert Mark on April 3rd, 2007

Just when pilots and flight departments began to breath a little easier about flying outside the U.S. comes word that the Brazilian air traffic control is finally coming unglued, much the way many predicted after the midair collision over the rainforest last fall between an Embraer Legacy and a Gol Airlines Boeing 737.

The Brazilian government released the two U.S. Legacy pilots last December, but not before calling them the responsible parties in the mess.

Early on after the accident, speculation seemed to point to the ATC system in South America’s largest country as, at least, a contributing factor. But the Brazilian government would hear none of that kind of talk and insisted the U.S. pilots had purposely turned off the Legacy’s transponder disabling the TCAS system on both airplanes making avoidance impossible.

Not surprisingly, the Brazilians could not explain any reason why the pilots would try something so ridiculous. But the smoke screen did take the heat off Brazil’s strained military run air traffic control system, at least for awhile.

In a move that surprised no one, except perhaps the government last Friday, Brazilian air traffic controllers called a strike. Adding insult to injury, the Brazil controllers who struck were mostly members of the military.

Here’s an update from our contact in San Paulo. You may want to seriously reconsider flights to Brazil , at least for awhile, after you read this interview.

“After the strike began, the controllers, Air-Force NCOs, demanded to talk with civilian authorities and clearly disobeyed orders from Air Force officials. As a result the Air Force Commander, Brig. Saito, went in person to Cindacta – 1 (an enroute center sector)to give arrest orders to all NCOs on strike. As servicemen they are forbidden from striking and could be charged with disobeying direct orders.

“Brig. Saito action was stopped by President Lula who was en route to Washington DC to meet President Bush at Camp David. President Lula da Silva ordered the Budget Minister and other people from the Chief of Staff office to negotiate an end to the strike without any sort of punishment, an action that clearly did not go well inside the Air Force.

“As a result, the Air Force gave-up the control of civilian air traffic.  During the weekend the commanding officers of the air traffic control centers did not show up and the striking NCOs were requested to leave the Air Force in a matter of weeks. Now, the control centers are in the hands of the NCOs.

“There is no official branch of government in charge and responsible to manage the ATC operation. The Federal government promised “plans” to proceed with the demilitarization of ATC in Brazil.

“It has been six months since the [midair]crisis and the government has done nothing and now has to comply with all demands of the controllers without even knowing what they’ll do next.

“I don’t believe such a complex ATC system can be changed overnight. We have no idea of who (or what) will replace the Air Force or when it will happen. Who is going to maintain the radar, communication and computer systems? Who is going to train the controllers?  Many other questions are sure to arise while no one is in charge.

If the alternative to the Air Force is to have the likes of Minister Waldir Pires running the system, I’d actually keep the Brazilian Air Force.”

And an update sent last night from Brazil … “Right now, everyone is coming back to their senses. Today both civilians and military were controlling flights but the officers were not present and there is no official organization in charge of ATC.

“It seems now that the Air Force will stay in charge until the new civilian organization that will be in charge of ATC, starts its activities. Flight schedules seem to be coming back to normal. The head of the civilian controllers union said today that he does not see any reason for another strike during the Easter holidays .

“The government promised that … the ATC system would be de-militarized, but there is no plan in place to accomplish this objective.”

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