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Cablegate: Brazilians Fear More Airport Chaos Over Christmas Weekend

VZCZCXRO4393
PP RUEHRG
DE RUEHBR #2680/01 3611007
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 271007Z DEC 06
FM AMEMBASSY BRASILIA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 7718
INFO RULSDMK/DEPT OF TRANSPORTATION WASHDC
RHMFIUU/HQ USSOUTHCOM MIAMI FL
RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHDC
RUEANHA/FAA WASHDC
RUEAYVF/FAA MIAMI ARTCC MIAMI FL
RUEWMFU/TSA HQ WASHINGTON DC
RUWDQAB/NTSB WASHINGTON DC
RUEHRI/AMCONSUL RIO DE JANEIRO 3602
RUEHSO/AMCONSUL SAO PAULO 8904
RUEHRG/AMCONSUL RECIFE 6043
RUEHBU/AMEMBASSY BUENOS AIRES 4491
RUEHSG/AMEMBASSY SANTIAGO 5998
RUEHMN/AMEMBASSY MONTEVIDEO 6665
RUEHAC/AMEMBASSY ASUNCION 5857
RUEHPE/AMEMBASSY LIMA 3300
RUEHBO/AMEMBASSY BOGOTA 4054
RUEHCV/AMEMBASSY CARACAS 3552
RUEHLP/AMEMBASSY LA PAZ 5071
RUEHQT/AMEMBASSY QUITO 2083
RUEHPO/AMEMBASSY PARAMARIBO 1211
RUCPDOC/USDOC WASHDC

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 04 BRASILIA 002680

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

TSA FOR VICKI REEDER, SUSAN HASMAN

SIPDIS
AMEMBASSY BUENOS AIRES PASS TSA ATTACHE JOCHOA
FAA FOR C. TERE FRANCESCHI, MAYTE ASHBY
CA FOR OVERSEAS CITIZENS SERVICES
DOD FOR OSD
NTSB FOR JOHN CLARK, BOB MACINTOSH

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: EAIR OTRA CASC ECON BR
SUBJECT: BRAZILIANS FEAR MORE AIRPORT CHAOS OVER CHRISTMAS WEEKEND

REF: A) BRASILIA 2531
B) BRASILIA 2315
C) BRASILIA 2564

1. (SBU) Summary: Air travelers in Brazil fear a difficult holiday
season after inclement weather in southeast Brazil, overbooking by
the country's principal carrier-TAM, malfunctions in TAM computers,
and unscheduled maintenance required on six TAM airlines aircraft
caused generalized flight delays to ripple throughout the Brazilian
airports from December 21 to 24. On December 21, over 43% of 1,227
flights nationwide were delayed by at least a half hour, and 47
flights were canceled outright. These difficulties were but the
latest in a series of breakdowns in Brazil's civil aviation system,
beginning with the September 29 mid-air collision between Gol flight
1907 and an ExcelAire executive jet. Finger pointing in the
accident investigation, the Air Traffic Controllers' (ATCs')
work-to-rule operation, and a massive communications equipment
failure on December 5 all suggest Brazil's civil aviation system is
in serious difficulties. Portions of the GoB have admitted it has a
problem, caused primarily by too few air traffic controllers but
also budgetary woes, outdated equipment and institutional
weaknesses. Institutional infighting and blame-shifting, however,
continue. Varig's collapse last year exacerbated the problem,
because the remaining carriers have not reassumed all of its routes
and are stretched to overcapacity on existing flights. For example,
according to news reports, TAM applied the normal approximately 20
percent empty-seat rate from business travel that occurs during the
rest of the year to the holiday travel season. If true, then this
was a grave mistake, as holiday travel in Brazil both results in
fully booked planes, and fewer cancellations. President Lula
instructed the Brazilian Air Force to assist TAM with planes to
accommodate the overflow. The civil aviation authority, ANAC, has
announced plans to audit TAM's records. End Summary.

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2. (U) From December 21 to 24, air travelers in Brazil were
subjected to a fresh round of airport chaos when inclement weather
in southeast Brazil, combined with TAM Airline's pulling of six A320
aircraft from service for unscheduled maintenance, computer
malfunctions, and overbooking created a ripple effect throughout the
country's already stressed civil aviation system. By 5 p.m.
December 21, over 43% of the 1,227 flights nationwide had been
delayed by over a half hour, many by several hours. 47 flights were
canceled outright. In an effort to alleviate the situation, the GOB
made available six Brazilian air force planes, including Lula's
former equivalent to Air Force One, to carry stranded TAM
passengers. Passengers' holiday spirit quickly went by the wayside
in the face of continued delays, cancellations and lack of
information. One Argentine family reportedly protested their
flight's cancellation with a sit-in on the Brasilia airport tarmac.
Meanwhile, one passenger in Rio de Janeiro was arrested after
becoming violent, and rowdy travelers in Sao Paulo's Guarulhos and
Congonhas airports required the authorities to call in the police to
protect TAM check-in personnel. Econoff waited in Brasilia's
airport for more than six hours on Friday, Dec. 22 for her visiting
spouse to arrive on a TAM connection from Sao Paulo.

Blackout, Possible Sabotage
---------------------------

3. (U) Much more serious was the complete shutdown for several hours
of all flights in and out of the Brasilia-based CINDACTA-1 air
traffic control region (responsible for portions of the crowded

BRASILIA 00002680 002 OF 004


southeast and center-west of Brazil) on December 6, when its
six-year-old, Italian-manufactured communications equipment
inexplicably failed. Data published by the National Civil Aviation
Agency (ANAC) indicated that 122 flights were cancelled while 436
flights, or 36 percent of the total among country's 67 major
airports, faced substantial delays (the data is limited to flights
up to 5 p.m.) Brasilia's airport, the hardest hit that day, saw 86
flights depart with substantial delays and 10 flights canceled.
Defense Minister Waldir Pires initially stated to the press that the
Air Force suspected there had been sabotage of the communications
equipment in CINDACTA-1. However, the Ministry later walked back
that claim, stating that there was no sabotage and instead blaming a
technical failure in the system. (Note: While Brazil transferred
overall aviation regulation responsibility from the Air Force to the
civilian ANAC in 2005, the Air Force retained control over the ATC
system and the majority of air traffic controllers are uniformed Air
Force personnel.)

4. (U) On December 8, Air Force Commander Carlos Bueno admitted
during a televised press conference that Brasilia's communications
equipment was "rather worn out" because the Air Force does not have
personnel trained to maintain it properly. However, later during
that same press conference, he recanted that statement. Bueno also
announced his decision to restructure and decentralize Brazil's air
traffic control regions, 80% of which is currently concentrated in
Brasilia.

Defense Minister Takes Fire
---------------------------

5. (U) Embattled Defense Minister Pires reportedly accused the
Brazilian Air Command of failure to properly maintain the air
traffic control equipment. According to Pires, the military should
have acted preventively to avoid the chaos that began on October 26.
He went on to say that the government is concerned that a solution
be found to prevent a new civil aviation crisis. He further
guaranteed that "all will go well" in the airports during the
Christmas and New Year holidays. Pressed by journalists about the
need for changes in the Air Traffic Control system, Pires would say
no more than that the problems would be thoroughly analyzed and
necessary measures taken.

6. (U) The National Accounts Tribunal (TCU, a rough equivalent to
the U.S. Government Accountability Office) gave the Administration
and the Congress a study detailing the problems Brazil's ATC system
faces. The TCU study criticized in particular inadequate funding of
the ATC system and poor management of the personnel and equipment in
the system. Pires predictably took issue with the TCU's claims
arguing that there was no lack of resources. "It's not for a lack
of resources" he said, "in 2005, we did not have a single funding
sequestration. We have been within budget for the last three
years."


Chart - Civil Aviation Funding Levels
Millions of Reais

Budget Budget
Year Requested Approved Difference Sequestered

2004 715.1 468.73 246.37 0
2005 667.12 495.05 231.0 59
2006 575.42 530.25 45.17 0

BRASILIA 00002680 003 OF 004


2007 611.36 485.59 125.77 n/a

Source: Correio Brasiliense

The Presidency Props up Pires: Pyrrhic Victory?
--------------------------------------------- ---

7. (U) President Lula's Chief of Staff, Dilma Rousseff, joined the
public fray to defend the government's performance, saying that
according to the information she had, there had been no cuts in the
Air Force's civil aviation budget. She cited investment of 3
billion reais (approximately USD 1.44 billion) for the expansion of
eight airports. And in the midst of his clash with the TCU, Pires
received the support of the Brazilian Vice President Jose Alencar,
who declared to the press that "The Minister of Defense is really
devoted. . .Waldir Pires is one of the best Brazilians we have. He
is giving all his effort to resolve this problem."

Pre-Christmas Guarantees
------------------------

8. (U) The credibility of military and civilian leadership has been
severely strained as officials have publicly promised that the
situation would improve-only to see it worsen. The week of December
11, Air Force Commander Bueno guaranteed in a conversation with
senators that there would not be a crisis in Brazilian airports
during Christmas and New Year's, when the number of passengers
increases substantially. Bueno said that to avoid delays, the Air
Command may even require controllers to stay on their air force
bases for the weekend, ready to be called in should events require,
as was done during the Proclamation of the Republic Holiday on
November 15. He also said that retired and new controllers were
being called to work to increase the troops at this year-end.
Milton Zuanazzi, president of the Civil Air Command (ANAC), agreed,
saying that the ATC difficulties would be resolved by February, but
that in any event, during the holiday season the controllers would
not be overloaded because there will not be a substantial increase
in the number of flights, although planes would be absolutely full,
explained Zuanazzi. In the wake of the December 21-24 chaos, public
confidence in the civair apparatus is at an all-time low.

Old Equipment, Poorly Paid Controllers . . .
--------------------------------------------

9. (SBU) Air Traffic Controllers are both protagonists and
antagonists in Brazil's current aviation drama. A journalist and
Brasilia section chief for a major news daily who has been reporting
on the ATC saga recently told Econoff that much of the ATC equipment
being used is 10, 12, 15 and, at certain airports, even 20 years
old. The journalist related that his ATC friend, an Air Force
sergeant, is constantly "worried that his electric or gas bill can't
be paid, that his son's school fees are behind schedule" due to his
low salary. The journalist surmised that this certainly has to
impact the focus and concentration of the largely enlisted military
ATC staff. He and another Globo reporter agreed with a
well-respected commentator's recent assessment, that it is
unacceptable that the country's most important air travel control
center is using such outdated equipment and does not even have
experts on 24-hour duty for emergency maintenance.

10. (U) Much of the chaos can be traced to air traffic controllers'
work-to-rule operation, instituted in the aftermath of the tragic
September 29 mid-air collision between Gol Airlines flight 1907 and

BRASILIA 00002680 004 OF 004


a Legacy executive jet. Under the work-to-rule operation,
controllers reduced -- to the international standard -- the number
of flights each controller handles. Controllers also have been
fighting for better salaries and work conditions, and may have
provoked a partial paralysis of flights -- which won them some
promises of increased pay and a restructuring of the personnel
system for controllers

. . . and Ghosts in the Machine
-------------------------------

11. (U) A December 20 article in business daily Gazeta Mercantil
indicated that there are approximately 30 phantom radar tracks
displayed per day on the CINDACTA-1 radar system. According to
Brazilian Air Force Brigadier-Major Ramon Borges, deputy director of
the Air Force's Department of Air Traffic Control, CINDACTA 1's
integrated radar system synchronizes images from various radar
stations to prevent blind spots or the superimposition of different
aircraft -- but a faulty radar unit has generated false readings
that spread to the entire system. "We have an average 30 false
radar tracks a day on Brasilia's radar (out of a total of 2,500
flights tracked)," Borges is quoted.


12. (SBU) Comment: The GoB's most pressing civair issue is dealing
with its controllers, who demand better pay and working conditions
(i.e. fewer flights per controller). Training new controllers will
take time, however, and higher salary demands have been difficult to
meet within the constraints of the military system to which the
controllers belong. Despite the black eye it has been given in the
press, however, it is unclear whether the Air Force is willing to
give up responsibility for air trafficcontrol. Unfortunately, with
the system under stress, there is little capacity to deal with
issues such as equipment failures or weather-related problems.

SOBEL

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