"We have the stage set for a new tragedy," says former FAB air flight controller
William Balza, UOL News
In Sao Paulo
In addition to the suffering caused to the families of 154 victims, the Gol flight 1907 tragedy, which occurred five years ago, revealed to the country the flaws in the Brazilian air traffic control system, previously unknown to the public, and triggered a crisis in the sector. Among the problems, radar in precarious conditions, black holes in the airspace and overworked controllers.
In the evaluation of Edleuzo Cavalcante, who served the Air Force (FAB) as flight controller for 23 years, the situation has not changed since September 2006. "We have the stage set for a new tragedy. It will not surprise any of us [in the field] if other accidents happen," says the former airman, now president of the Brazilian Association of Air Traffic Controllers (ABCTA).
The former airman was working in Cindacta in Brasilia, and was expelled from the Air Force in April of this year for insubordination. In June 2007, he and 13 other Cindacta controllers were removed from air traffic control after becoming involved in work-to-rule protests and demonstrations to denounce the controllers' working conditions.
Cavalcante's coworker, controller Lucivando Tiburcio de Alencar was convicted in April of this year, to three years and four months in semi-open regime - a sentence commuted to community service - for not following the recommended procedures when faced with difficulties in communication with the Legacy.
For his part, controller Jomarcelo Fernandes dos Santos, convicted by a military court, was acquitted for being considered unfit for the job. He'd spent nine months in Cindacta 1 and ignored the indications on his control screen that the Legacy's transponder (anti-collision system) was off and it was flying against traffic.
In addition to controllers, the pilots of the Legacy jet were convicted, Americans Jan Paul Paladino and Joseph Lepore, to four years and four months in a halfway house, a sentence also commuted to community service.
Jomarcelo was moved into bureaucratic services in Brasilia. Lucivando works in the Fortaleza control tower. "Jomarcelo is very shy. After the accident, he suffered so much inside, he does not like talking about it. Lucivando was already passionate about air traffic and is an excellent professional. Today he is pointed to, for the deaths of 154 people."
Five years later, new reports
In court testimony, sergeant Wellington Rodrigues said Jomarcelo was approved as a controller almost by force, after being repeatedly failed in exams. The sergeant also said that the pressure to put him to work was a function of the reduced number of controllers.
Five years later, the situation is repeating. UOL News had access to an internal document from Cenipa (Centre for Investigation and Prevention of Aeronautical Accidents), issued on July 12 of this year. In it, sergeant Eurípides Barsanulfo Marques, Cindacta 1 controller and instructor, again complained that unqualified airmen are being place in control of traffic.
"As a controller and instructor of this Center, I could see the poor quality of the instructional process and especially the concession of technical controllers' licenses to people without the minimum knowledge and ability to exercise such a complex activity," says the sergeant in the document.
He then cites the case of two soldiers who "were considered unfit by all the ATM-016/2010 course instructors" and who were licensed as controllers after passing through a "course of education where the aim is solely to issue licenses quickly without minimum performance being in fact reached."
Marques concludes the report recalling the case of Jomarcelo: "this situation is very serious and is similar to another that this Center experienced in 2006, whose outcome we all know," he concludes, recalling the tragedy with the Gol flight.
Ever younger controllers
Edleuzo Cavalcante says that the examples cited in the document are not isolated cases. "In 2003, at Cindcta 1, the proportion of controllers with more than five years of experience was 76%. In 2007, it dropped to 67%. Today there are 53%," he says.
In the ex-controller's evaluation, the picture is explained by the pressure to license the controllers and lack of attractions for airmen to continue in the role. He said the starting salary for a controller is R$ 2,500 per month [about US$18,000 per annum] and, in many cases, airmen with more than 20 years in the career earn less than R$ 4,500 per month [about US$32,000 per annum].
"After a while, no one wants to continue as controller. Ther's no attraction. It is by nature a stressful job. It is very common for controllers to suffer from insomnia, gastritis, tachycardia. So you have to fill the demand left by those who quit, somehow. Since there are no unemployed controllers, since the Air Force has a monopoly on the sector, they are forced to put in unqualified controllers," he says.
According to the association, the average working time for each controller was 120 to 140 hours per month in 2007. Today, it has risen to 165 hours. The number of professionals at the four Cindactas (Brasilia, Recife, Manaus and Curitiba) rose from 2,900 in 2006 to the current total of 3,100 - 26% of the total employed are civilians.
The increase (6.9%) is well below the increase in the volume of air traffic in Brazil over the past five years (50%).
For Cavalcante, by the 2014 World Cup and the Olympics in 2016 it will be necessary to train about 2,000 experienced controllers to ease air traffic control in Brazil. "We need that many today, since they need three years of experience, at least," he says.
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After the 2006 crash, the government and Congress debated the need for demilitarization of air traffic control, a key demand of entities in the sector. Brazil is one of the few countries worldwide that maintains air traffic control in the hands of the military, along with Eritrea, Togo and Gabon.
After the accident between the Gol Boeing and the Legacy, Argentina decided to demilitarize the sector. "It is an essential public service. There must be transparency. Air traffic control is different from the control of airspace, and has nothing to do with national security. But no one does anything about it in Brazil. They think it's poking a wasps' nest," Cavalcante said.
The FAB press office was contacted by UOL News, but by Thursday afternoon had not responded to the former controller's claims.