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Debriefing: Grounded in Brazil

PJL: If you’re a type-A traveler like me, the only thing more infuriating than four hours of tarmac purgatory is never being told what’s happening, or why. Heck, lie to me if you have to, just tell me something. (If the reason is "massive radar malfunction," I’m not sure I want the truth.)

My recent trip to Brazil was enjoyable on the whole, but I had a maddening time getting around. As readers may know—or may not, since it’s received remarkably little coverage here—Brazil’s air traffic system has been in shambles for months.

The problems began in the wake of last September’s horrific GOL Airlines crash, the worst in the nation’s history. Ever since, Brazil’s air-traffic controllers (ATC’s)—by most accounts underpaid, under-resourced, and overworked—have been capping the number of flights they handle per day to comply with an industry-recommended maximum. (I for one had no idea that most airports and ATC’s around the world routinely exceed those guidelines, which makes you wonder why they exist in the first place. But that’s a whole other topic.)

The conflict has only intensified in recent months, with beleagured ATC’s resorting to walkouts and even, in late March, to a hunger strike. All of this has thrown Brazil’s airports and flight schedules into turmoil. Delays and cancellations are almost a given.

Had I known how chaotic flying would be, I wouldn’t have planned my itinerary around three internal flights (São Paulo to Salvador, Salvador to Porto Seguro, and Porto Seguro São Paulo), each of which was delayed by at least five hours. One was canceled outright, after an all-morning wait on the tarmac. Throughout, neither the ground reps from TAM, Brazil’s largest airline, nor the flight crew, nor the telephone agents seemed capable of explaining definitively the reason for each delay. "Controlers walked out," our steward offered with a shrug. "No, power outage in Braśilia—radar’s down," said his colleague. "Bad wind, no takeoffs," said the baggage handler.

TAM is a decent-enough airline, once it’s actually in the air. And I’m sure it’s as frustrated as its passengers are by all the disruptions of late, which, as far as I could tell, weren’t really its fault. Still, it’s an airline’s responsibility to keep passengers informed. My countless hours waiting in departure lounges were put to use speculating what TAM’s initials might actually stand for. Here are a few guesses:

THIS AIN’T MOVING
TOMORROW AFTERNOON, MAYBE?
TIME?ABSOLUTELY MEANINGLESS
TRY AGAIN MAÑANA

All this is to say that travelers bound for Brazil should be prepared for the same, and should consider minimizing domestic travel until the country’s air-traffic mess is sorted out.

For more information, check out "Brazil Air Travel Safe But Lacks Controllers" on Airwise.com, a solid travel and aviation industry site.

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