Government Culture at Fault in TAM Linhas Aéreas Disaster

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Congonhas Airport

(Img Source: Flight Global)

Among pilots, it was known as the “aircraft carrier”. To passengers, it was just another airport.

Congonhas – São Paulo International Airport serves the São Paulo metropolitan area as its main hub for domestic and short international flights. Having flown into this airport several times, I can say that the proximity of the airport to urban developments was more of a novelty than a source of fear. Having something to look at makes the frustrating and boring process of landing go by faster. Much like Rockaway Beach for passengers flying into JFK, the residential and commercial neighborhoods that surround Congonhas Airport were a welcome distraction.

The only reason I could indulge in being distracted was because I felt safe. I knew this airport was an anomaly when compared to others, which for the most part are withdrawn from the cities they serve and in sparsely populated areas, but I was sure the necessary precautions had been taken. I was wrong.

Two things were wrong about my assumption: that the government would have understood that Congonhas is a unique airport and taken the necessary measures to ensure that planes would not over shoot the runway (including in an attempt to abort landing and take off), and that they would not allow planes to land on any runway which had previously been the center of controversy regarding the ability to receive them. The former I had thought of and dismissed, the latter I did not know of until today.

For years airline pilots have been calling for an extended safety zone, or at the very least a concrete arrester bed, to be installed. Nothing was done.

This tragic disaster can serve as a metaphor for the current government of Brazil. Slowly the country has slid into an epoch of political complacency and cronyism. The Nomenklatura of the Soviet Union, which became an elite cadre of government administrators embedded in an impenetrable web of patron-client relationships, seems commendable and efficient when compared to Brazil. In the Soviet Union at least the rigidity of the system, where one had to enact the policies of one’s patron or lose a job or a chance of promotion, was preserved, understood, and even sometimes respected. In Brazil, a political free-for-all has developed where the only metric for success is money and sloth.

Brazilian political integrity has languished to the point of becoming pathetic. It is not a surprise, since this is depressingly parallel to our stagnated growth rate which, at 4%, is doing nothing but surfing on a wave of global expansion. During the next international recession (like 1997), Brazil will collapse into a pile of underdeveloped industry and commodities which no longer sell for what they used to.

In Brazil, civil servants build policies not around the needs of the population or even common sense, but around that which will most benefit their own motives. Expecting a government to be exempt of self-interest or corruption is a high standard to set, but expecting constant shift in the right direction is not. Take, for example, this quote from a BBC News article regarding the banning of larger aircraft from the airport in Congonhas in February.

“The safety conditions of the runway and the airport as a whole are adequate,” a spokeswoman from Brazil’s National Agency of Civil Aviation said.


She added the judge’s ruling could end up affecting 10,000 passengers per day.


“If the injunction stands, it will cause total chaos,” a spokesman for TAM Linhas Aereas, SA, the nation’s biggest carrier, said.”

I’m glad they avoided chaos. 200 people are dead, the stock prices and reputations of Brazil’s 2 largest airlines are crumbling, and the tourism industry can expect a heavy blow – but at least everyone at the office got to go home early for a couple of months.

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