Focus of Brazil air crash shifts away from runway

Thu Jul 19, 2007 9:18pm EDT

(Adds report on technical problem, updates identified bodies)

By Todd Benson

SAO PAULO, July 19 (Reuters) - Debate over the cause of Brazil's worst air crash shifted on Thursday from widespread claims of a faulty runway to potential pilot error or failure of the plane's braking systems.

Soon after Tuesday's fiery accident at Sao Paulo's Congonhas airport, which killed all 186 people on board and more on the ground, many officials and aviation experts blamed the rain-soaked runway where the Airbus A320 EAD.PA skidded before slamming into a gas station and cargo terminal.

But Globo TV said the jet had been flying without one of its thrust reversers, which help slow the plane at landing. It reported the device was turned off after a malfunction last week and that the plane had difficulty braking on the same slippery runway one day before the crash.

Still, an executive for the airline said technical norms allowed flying the jet even with two reversers shut. A reverser is temporarily deployed at the rear of a jet engine to divert its thrust forward and aid braking.

A video of the botched final landing by TAM Linhas Aereas TAMM4.SA(TAM.N) plane released by the national airport authority Infraero also seemed to cast doubt on whether the runway was at fault in Brazil's second major aviation disaster in less than a year.

Infraero chief Jose Carlos Pereira said the runway was safe for aircraft the size of the A320 and that the recently repaved landing strip was not to blame. Nevertheless, he said air traffic in Congonhas would be cut by nearly 20 percent.

According to Infraero, the footage shows the jet accelerating instead of braking when it touched down on the short, slippery runway -- perhaps because the pilot was trying to lift off again after realizing he could not brake in time.

Others expressed doubt.

"The government is clearly trying to convince public opinion that the runway at Congonhas was not at fault," said Elnio Borges, president of the Varig Pilots' Association. "They're going to do everything they can to blame the pilot."

By Thursday afternoon, firefighters had sent 207 body bags to the morgue but said the exact number of corpses could not yet be established. Only 25 bodies have been identified.

Four badly injured victims died in hospitals. At the TAM cargo building hit by the plane, eight people were missing.

SAFETY CONCERNS

The crash highlighted persistent safety concerns about Sao Paulo's aging domestic airport. Congonhas, which sits in the middle of South America's largest city, is known for its short and slick runways.

The TAM plane was landing on a surface that had been repaved in June after officials tried to ban large jets over fears they could skid off the runway.

But the landing strip still had not been grooved to drain rainwater, prompting criticism that the airport was reopened prematurely because it is so important to Brazil's economy.

"The real question is why was Congonhas reopened in that state," said Paulo Sampaio, an aviation consultant at Multiplan Consultora in Rio de Janeiro. "It's a crime."

The airport reopened on Wednesday with an alternate runway. But federal prosecutors filed a petition to have it shut until both runways were determined to be meet safety standards.

"It's evident that something went wrong that didn't allow him to slow down in time," said Infraero's Pereira.

Firefighters have recovered both of the plane's cockpit recorders, which were sent to the United States for analysis. French and U.S. safety investigators are helping Brazilian authorities probing the crash.

Air travel in Brazil has been chaotic since a Boeing 737 (BA.N) clipped wings with a private jet last September and crashed in the Amazon jungle, killing 154 people.

Air-traffic controllers, fearing they were being made scapegoats, have staged periodic work slowdowns to protest what they call deficient radar and radio equipment and poor pay.

Delays and cancellations have become routine, prompting frustrated passengers to occasionally storm onto airfields. (Additional reporting by Claudia Pires, Denise Luna and Natuza Nery)




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