Military Courts begin trial of Brasilia air traffic controllers
Sergeants indicted for paralyzing air traffic control in March 2007 begin to testify
by Murilo Ramos
A military court this week began the trial of 51 air traffic controllers who, three years ago, participated in a strike causing chaos in airports around the country. Dissatisfied with working conditions, air traffic controllers refused to monitor the aircraft that crossed the skies of Brazil. On March 30, 2007, thousands of users of air transport jostled at airports, unable to board flights. The suspending of takeoffs caused incalculable damage to passengers, airlines and the image of the government, unable to manage a crisis triggered in the ranks of the Air Force.
Indicted by the Military Prosecutor's Office (MPM) for mutiny and for failing to provide air traffic control services, the exclusive province of the federal government, the airmen began to testify and to defend themselves. The controllers' goal is to try to avoid expulsion from the Air Force and jail terms which could range from two to eight years. The start of the trial is a good opportunity for people to know what actually happened in the months before the crisis and before the government took measures to insure that the "aerial blackout" would not again disrupt the lives of citizens. The growth of air traffic and the hosting of world-class sporting events, such as the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016, reinforce the concern.
Signs of the crisis that would explode in the first half of 2007 were noted soon after the collision between the Gol Boeing and the Legacy in September 2006 in which 154 people died. Suspected of responsibility for the midair collision, the controllers complained of a supposedly strenuous work day and of the deterioration of equipment used for monitoring aircraft. In protest, on the October 12 and November 2 holidays weekends, air traffic controllers increased the intervals between flights and caused delays and lines at airports. In March, shortly before the strike, an apocryphal letter with controllers' demands circulated among the airspace control centers. It was the trigger for the paralyzation.
According to the MPM prosecutor handling the case, Ione Cross, the movement was not aimed at improving air traffic control, but was only to benefit the controllers. "It was a mutiny. They infringed the criminal code. They abjectly broke the hierarchy," she said. "They are responsible for the worst crisis in civil aviation," she said. According to Roberto Sobral, the lawyer for 30 of the accused, his strategy is to have the charges dismissed based on the premise that the Air Force knew that something out of the ordinary was to happen. "The Command could have intervened and prevented the whole movement. What happened was the Air Force infiltrated confidential agents to cause tumult, and then blamed these controllers who have been indicted," he said. As to the paralyzation, Sobral said it was for the best that takeoffs were suspended because the agglomeration of people disturbed the controlling of air traffic, which requires concentration.
In one regard, defense and prosecution both agree: the trial should be lengthy. This is because each of the 51 defendants has the right to call five witnesses, resulting in more than 250 people to be heard by the judge hearing the case. Regardless of the outcome, the parties can still appeal to the Superior Military Court (STM) and, ultimately, the Supreme Court (STF). Prosecutor Ione Cross is still trying to include in the trial the 38 traffic controllers against whom indictments had been returned, but were dropped by the Military Court on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence against them. In Manaus and Curitiba trials are also underway of controllers supposedly following commands said to have come from Brasilia.
The 2007 crisis led to arguments about the Brazilian air traffic control model. At the time, the possibility of demilitarization of the service was considered. The President's Office joined the discussion. The executive secretary, Erenice War, asked for suggestions from air traffic controllers, now among those indicted, on changing the system. But after the aviation blackout Erenice did not take the matter up again with the controllers. In some European countries and the United States, there are two control systems: one dedicated to civil aviation and the other for air defense. The Air Force Command defends the current system. It states that countries like France and Italy are adhering to the integrated model, adopted by Brazil. The Air Force also states that the Brazilian air traffic control system is safe. "The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) ranked us second in the world with 95% compliance in operational procedures and safety, only 1% behind Canada," he said.
The expectation is that the "aerial blackout" crisis and the trial of the 51 controllers will serve to eliminate bottlenecks from now on. The Air Force says it learned from the chaos. It has adopted better procedures for recruitment, training and development, and invested more appropriately in Brazilian airspace. So let it be, and so let it continue!