Opinion by Samantha Barthelemy

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Passengers of American Airlines flight 256, departing from Rio de Janeiro’s Antonio Carlos Jobim (GIG) Terminal 1, to New York’s John F. Kennedy (JFK), were lucky to make their 11:30PM flight on November 20. The same was probably true for passengers of British Airways 248, Aerolineas Argentinas 1257 and American Airlines 904.

Samantha Barthelemy, Carioca in New York specializing in International Security Policy, Brazilian Studies and Communications.

Massive delays for air travelers have become the norm at GIG. The required three hours for international flights, which frankly, most people I know rarely comply with, is almost not enough to fly out of Rio de Janeiro. Passengers to New York, who checked-in before 9PM, were stuck for an average of 1 hour and 30 minutes at the interminable queue of the Polícia Federal (Federal Police).

Oddly, passports were being checked after passengers had gone through screening, generating additional lines and further slowing the laborious process. American Airlines’ personnel reportedly told customers the Federal Police was on strike and only two officers were checking documents. According to one AA 256 passenger, who preferred not to be identified but claimed to have arrived three and a half hours prior to the scheduled departure to JFK, the “misinformation was generalized, there wasn’t anyone there to explain [to passengers] what was going on.”

Anyone who’s flown out of Rio de Janeiro knows its international airport is overburdened, or mismanaged. The issue is not local, but national (or, in this case, international) and is now being openly and harshly criticized. “Brazil is Latin America’s largest and fastest growing economy but air transport infrastructure is a growing disaster,” Giovanni Bisignani, CEO of the International Air Transport Association (which represents 230 airlines around the world), said at a meeting of the Latin American and Caribbean Air Transport Association in Panama, on November 18th.

“To avoid a national embarrassment, Brazil needs bigger and better facilities for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympics,” Bisignani added. “But I don’t see progress and the clock is ticking. The time for debate is over.”

Demand for aviation services in Brazil has grown rapidly following the country’s economic boom in the last decade. Bisignani told industry leaders thirteen of the nation’s twenty largest domestic airports cannot accommodate existing demand. Experts say the principal problems arise from persistent underspending on radars and basic infrastructure (such as runways) and delays for safety upgrades and the training of air traffic controllers.

Unsurprisingly, Bisignani isn’t the first to criticize Brazil’s air transport system. When Rio won the bid for hosting the Olympic games, on October 2009, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) expressed concerns over the government’s ability to improve its airports ahead of 2016. The government pledged to spend US$14.4 billion to upgrade the city, of which over 70 percent would be used to boost infrastructure. Earlier this year, Rio 2016 committee president Carlos Arthur Nuzman said the IOC’s main concern was still the apparent lack of planning to refurbish domestic airports.

Rio receives approximately 3 million international visitors a year. According to estimates, the World Cup could increase tourism by 5 percent, and the Olympic games, by 10 percent. If we can’t keep the daily dozens of Rio-São Paulo ponte aéreas departing on time, how do we handle airport congestion with 300,000 extra visitors coming at once?

In June, Sports Minister Orlando Silva recognized the country wasn’t “at full speed” with regards to its transportation facilities, but said improving airports was a “top priority”. Brazilian officials are now attempting to calm international anxieties. Silva recently said Infraero, the national airport authority, is set to invest US$3.1 billion to ensure airports in particular are ready for 2014. On November 19th, Defense Minister Nelson Jobim told Agência Estado Bisignani’s comments were “vastly overblown” and that “matters were being attended to”.

Olympic eyes aren’t only set on the marvelous city’s asphalts and favelas. To be fair, Rio’s authorities have innumerous, more immediate and arguably less manageable, issues to tend to (think the three arrastões which occurred on the evening of November 21). But, as Elaine Correia, Rio 2016 committee spokeswoman, said, the committee trusts Brazil’s government to fulfill the promises made in Rio’s candidacy bid. I trust them too. After all, as Bisignani reportedly said “they tell me that when you are speaking of soccer, Brazil makes miracles.”

A Belgian-Brazilian native of Rio de Janeiro and former United Nations journalist, Samantha Barthelemy is a dual degree Masters of International Affairs student with Columbia University and the Paris Institute of Political Studies, specializing in International Policy, Brazilian Studies and Communications.


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