Into The Great Blue Yonder

Filed by Steve Ritter

Even for veteran travelers, the thought of taking an airline flight ups your anxiety level at least one or two notches. You know it’s relatively safe to fly, but there’s always that menacing thought in the back of your mind that something could go wrong.

So the last thing you would need to read in the newspaper a few days before your flight is that the air-traffic control where you are heading is not what it should be. That’s the situation Erika and I are facing along with several of our cotravelers here in Brazil this week.

On Sunday, May 20, an article in the Washington Post revealed that Brazil and Argentina have been faulted on air safety. Pilots and air-traffic controllers in these two countries have been warning that shoddy equipment and staffing shortages are putting passengers at risk.

In Buenos Aires, for example, the only certified long-range radar was struck by lightning in March and hasn’t been replaced. There have been a few “near misses” as controllers manually guide aircraft. The controllers, when they get overwhelmed, are having aircraft turn and wait about 100 miles from the airport until traffic thins out, a situation that “is absolutely unknown in aviation,” according to the Washington Post article.

In Brazil, the air-traffic systems have been under scrutiny since last year when a commercial flight collided with a smaller private plane over the Amazon, killing all 154 people on the airliner. One pilot was quoted: “I always used to say that, despite everything, Brazil’s air traffic was safe. But I don’t think that anymore.” Gulp.

Then, one of our Brazilian hosts, professor Paulo C. Vieira of the Federal University of São Carlos, sent us an e-mail on Tuesday saying this time of the year weather conditions are not always good, and our flight could be diverted to another airport. “If that happens, please no worries,” he said. “Wait until your flight finally lands in São Paulo. We will be there waiting for you anyway.”

Then Vieira added that he had just heard the Federal Police, who control immigration and customs, were set to go on a three-day strike. He warned we might have long lines when we arrived.

What can you do? We just gritted our teeth and hoped for the best. And the best is what we got. No problems at all with our flight and deplaning in São Paulo, other than being tired from the overnight flight from Miami.

But while we were waiting in passport control, where the lines were short, the lights suddenly went out, and we were left in the dark. There was a lot of uncertainty in that moment. But the custodians kept on emptying the trash bins, and the immigration officers seemed unruffled. After a couple of minutes, the lights came back on, as did a large-screen TV showing a soccer match. We got our passports stamped and stepped on into Brazil.


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