The tragic TAM crash of July 17 at Sao Paulo’s Congonhas Airport that killed almost 200 people has, when coupled with the government’s bad handling of the 2006 Gol disaster and ongoing air traffic control (ATC) problems that recently scattered inbound planes flying over the Amazon region, made Brazilians and foreigners alike of flying in the country. ATW Daily News reports that even President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is afraid to fly:
“It’s no secret to any Brazilian that we have an aviation crisis,” he said. “Personally, when the airplane door closes, I deliver myself to God. Even with my luck in the hands of God, I confess I’m afraid. I confess this publicly because I am not embarrassed to say we are afraid.” Silva vowed to “do what has to be done and spend what has to be spent” to make air travel safe in Brazil.
Safety is of the utmost importance. But also important is the perception of safety. On the one hand, if the Brazilian government were to deny that there is a problem, it would be engaging in happy-talk. On the other hand, for the president to publicly disavow flying might be going too far.
Brazil’s airlines do not have especially unsafe records. The public notices big events that happen close together and draw perceptions from that, but statistics compiled by Airsafe.com indicate that TAM and other Brazilian airlines are safe to middle-of-the-road for Latin American airlines and doing downright well compared to U.S. giants American and United. Patrick Smith, as usual, counsels calm. So, we cannot merely write off Brazilian airlines as unsafe.
But Brazil’s ATC system needs repair, and it needs to get its employees–public servants, defense officials, even–in line. As long as ATC is a government task conducted on the premise that it is a matter of safety and security, then Calvin Coolidge’s statement after the Boston Police Strike of 1919 applies to them: “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.” Ronald Reagan put this to the test with air traffic controllers in 1981, and over 11,000 striking controllers were fired.
Brazil’s controllers have been playing at the edges of a strike. Maybe it’s justified, maybe not. Regardless, they are public safety officials at a time of perceived crisis. Brazil’s skies are safer than the doomsayers say. It is irresponsible for anyone to be toying with the public perception of safety at this time.
Brazil needs to fix its real aviation problems. It doesn’t need its president and its air traffic controllers exacerbating the crisis of confidence in aviation safety.