Following Brazil's deadliest air disaster that killed over 200 people Brazilian federal prosecutors sought a court order to shut down the entire Congonhas airport, Brazil's busiest, until the investigation into the crash was completed.
Congonhas airport should halt operations "until its security conditions are examined and questions about the accident are answered," said Brazil's Public Ministry, which acts as an ombudsman in matters of public interest.
However it was unclear when judges would rule on the request for the airport that lies in the heart of Sao Paulo. Doing so would likely create huge problems for civil aviation throughout Latin America's largest nation because Congonhas is a key hub, but prosecutors called the move essential to ensuring air safety.
"It is necessary to temporarily paralyze the activities at the Congonhas airport in Sao Paulo until a complete renovation of both of its runways can be completed and there is certainty that they are fully secure," prosecutors said in a statement.
For months, air safety concerns have been aired in congressional hearings, and pilots and traffic controllers have worried for years about the short, slippery runways at Brazil's busiest airport.
Landing on the 6,362-foot runway at Congonhas airport is so challenging that pilots liken it to an aircraft carrier – if they don't touch down within the tarmac's first 1,000 feet, they're warned to pull up and circle around again. The un-grooved runway becomes even more treacherous in the rain, when it turns into a slick landing surface.
Making things worse this Thursday a TAM jet pulled out of an attempted landing at Congonhas. The TAM jet was rerouted to São Paulo's international airport after coming in at an unsafe angle to Congonhas, the nation's airport authority Infraero said. Besides on the day before the crash, two other planes skidded off the runway's end.
Congressional investigations have raised questions about Brazil's underfunded air traffic control system, deficient radar and lack of investment in infrastructure, even as airlines struggle to cope with a surge in air travel caused by the booming economy.
President Luis Inácio da Silva has been unable to wrest control of the civil aviation system from the military, which oversees Brazil's air traffic controllers and has filled top positions at the national aviation agency with political appointees.
Brazil's airway infrastructure has been under scrutiny since the September crash of a Gol airliner with 154 people on board in the Amazon jungle. The plane had been clipped by a smaller jet.
Congonhas main runway had been resurfaced last month, but more work was scheduled for September to build grooves to improve water drainage.
"Control tower operators had warned the runway should be closed because it didn't have 'grooving,' but no one in the government wanted to hear about it," said Sergio Oliveira, who heads the Federation of Air Controllers.
The probe of the crash should take about 10 months, according to investigators, who hope they will be able to retrieve recorded data from one of the black boxes found at the site of the crash.
Congonhas is Latin America's busiest airport, with an average of 630 daily landings and take-offs. It is mainly used for flights from other parts of Brazil and South America. But like many congested urban airports, Congonhas's domestic air travel hub is surrounded by development and has no room for the runway extensions recommended by air safety groups.
The International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations said the accident shows the need for the next best thing – braking systems of soft cement beyond the runway, where wheels can sink in and slow the jets to a safe stop.
Known as an arrestor bed, the system has prevented several planes from ending up in the bay next to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, said Gideon Ewers, the pilot group's spokesman.
The accident is certain to have political ramifications, however, if only because the dead included federal Deputy Julio Redecker, 51, a leader of the opposition Brazilian Social Democracy Party and vocal critic of Lula da Silva's handling of the aviation crisis.
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