The controllers' mutiny
Air Force expelled flight controllers for mutiny during air chaos
From São Paulo
From São Paulo
The Air Force expelled seven flight controllers for participating in a mutiny in 2007, during the country's "air chaos", when the class organized a “work-to-rule” protest that resulted in delays, flight cancellations and huge queues at airports. The decision on expulsion was published in the "Official Gazette" of the Union on September 19 of this year. This Thursday (Sept.29) marks the tenth anniversary of Gol Boeing 737 accident that killed 154 people and started one of most troubled periods in Brazilian aviation.
The Curitiba Flight controllers had been convicted in 2010 for refusing to work on March 30, 2007, when they crossed their arms to protest failures in the national aviation system and exhausting working hours.
The penalty was converted to probation, and expulsion from the Air Force was, at the time, just an accessory to the sentence. The case was classified as a mutiny by the Air Force, and the indictment was accepted by the Military Tribunal and the Supreme Court.
[Photo: Amazon flight controllers on hunger strike in protest exhaustive working hours and lack of career plan. Credit:30.mar.2007 / A Critica]
Among those convicted in Curitiba is Dinarte Bichels who, according to his defense, was about to retire and go into the reserves. A month ago, Bichels was still working as a flight controller in Curitiba, with the rank of first sergeant. He had been in the Air Force for about 30 years.
For Gustavo Bitencourt, Bichels's lawyer, during the controllers' protest there was a promise by the federal government that the class would not be punished. The promise, he said, was not kept. "There was no violence, no insubordination. There was a movement for improvements in the aviation system," he says. "The controllers didn't have adequate working conditions. Four of them had psychological reports that said they were shaken," he says.
The lawyer said his client had no involvement in the movement and was in the air traffic control center in Curitiba for 15 minutes to accompany the local commander. The Air Force says that the removal of the controllers is justified, since they were convicted of mutiny, a military crime. An appeal came to be examined by the Supreme Court, but was denied, upholding the conviction.
Since the Gol crash in September 2006, controllers have had their procedures investigated. In response, in the category (for the most part, military) reported working with outdated software and equipment. Another complaint was that the workload was exhaustive and not compatible with the job's responsibility.
The controllers the adopted the work-to-rule operation, which caused delays, flight cancellations and rising costs to airlines. Huge queues at airports were formed almost daily.
The crisis worsened until, on March 30, the controllers issued a manifesto to the press and the federal government. They criticized the infrastructure of the air traffic control system and the rigidity of the military hierarchy. "We do not trust our equipment and do not trust our commanders," read the manifesto. The controllers demanded the demilitarization of the sector and the improvement of the work infrastructure.
That night, the flight controllers in Manaus, Brasilia and Curitiba crossed their arms asking for better working conditions. The control centers in these three cities are responsible for airspace virtually all the country except the Northeast. Thus, almost all flights that night were suspended in Brazil.
The then President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva intervened and negotiated with the controllers. The deal caused malaise between the federal government and the Air Force, which went so far as to announce it would hand over control of civil airspace in the country. With promises of improvements, the controllers returned to work. Still, a legal proceeding in the military justice system was initiated against those who mutinied in the three cities.
In the case of Curitiba, the controllers served the sentence in liberty, but as a consequence of conviction, were expelled from the Air Force. The proceeding are still ongoing in Manaus and Brasilia.
The promise of demilitarization of the sector has not happened. Some of the controllers criticized that the military regime (requiring the permanent availability to work), is not compatible with activity as a flight controller, which would require scheduled rest.
This month, the new Air Force commandant announced that he wants to create a state company of civil and military character for control of the Brazilian airspace. The idea is that the company would have its own budget. Currently, much of what is received by the Air Force for providing air traffic control service is impounded by the federal government.
The Air Force is responsible for coordinating and maintaining the air control structure and has 4,230 controllers (80% military). Ten years ago, there were 2,824 controllers. The increase was due to the training of more military personnel for the function and holding civil service exams. Today, a military controller begind earning R$ 3,267.00 a month. Speaking to the Folha, the commander of one of the country's airspace control centers admitted that he "cannot pay the controllers the salary he'd like to pay." According to him, for this to happen, the Air Force budget would have to be bigger.
The demand for improvements in infrastructure have improved (sic) since the mutiny, although the sector still presents bottlenecks.