Rio fog strands World Cup fans at Brazil airports on game day

RIO DE JANEIRO/SAO PAULO Tue Jun 17, 2014 1:10pm EDT

The skyline of Rio de Janeiro is pictured June 16, 2014.    REUTERS/Michael Dalder (BRAZIL  - Tags: SPORT SOCCER WORLD CUP)   - RTR3U4C0

The skyline of Rio de Janeiro is pictured June 16, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Michael Dalder (BRAZIL - Tags: SPORT SOCCER WORLD CUP) - RTR3U4C0

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RIO DE JANEIRO/SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Fog over Rio de Janeiro's Guanabara Bay on Tuesday stranded hundreds of fans trying to catch Brazil's second match of the World Cup in the soccer tournament's worst travel headache so far.

The closures rippled through Brazil's domestic networks, underscoring the World Cup's dependence on smooth air travel as fans and teams bounce between 12 host cities sprawled across the world's fifth-largest country in terms of area.

The bad weather closed Rio's Santos Dumont airport for hours in the early morning, cancelling over one-third of departures from the downtown domestic hub and from Sao Paulo's Congonhas airport at the other end of Brazil's busiest route.

"You can't blame the organizers for fog, but it really is a letdown," said U.S. expatriate Michael Hayden. His brother's flight from Chicago to Rio was also diverted, ruining their chances of catching an afternoon game together.

Santos Dumont reopened as the morning fog burned off, but tight bookings meant 27 of 63 departures had been canceled by 11 a.m. Foul weather in the southern city of Curitiba also delayed 50 percent of flights, according to Infraero, the state airport operator.

The closures rippled throughout Brazil's domestic networks, underscoring the World Cup's dependence on smooth air travel as fans and teams bounce between the 12 host cities sprawled across the world's fifth-largest country by area.

Airlines have warned a drop in business travel during the month-long tournament may hurt revenue, while the scrutiny of traveling fans could put a harsh spotlight on an industry that already suffers delays under the best of conditions.

"I don't know who's going to win the games, but the airlines are going to lose with the World Cup," said Enrique Cueto, chief executive officer of LATAM Airlines, at an industry event in March.

"If you do things right with operations, you can wind up with a draw," he said. "You get it wrong, and you don't get to a game on time and you'll soon see what you get."

Outrage was easy to find among the hundreds of travelers who packed waiting areas at Santos Dumont. Sofiane Bekhe, an Algerian stuck in Rio while his team warmed up to play Belgium, seethed at the idea of missing the one match for which he had tickets.

"I paid 6,000 euros ($8,200) to come to Brazil and I can't see the game," said Bekhe, who lives in Paris. "I've been in Brazil three days and I just want to go home."

President Dilma Rousseff made it a priority to overhaul old and overcrowded airports before the tournament. A handful of concessions attracted millions in private investments, but most airports are still run by Infraero, which finished few of the renovations promised in host cities before the Cup.

No major work was planned at Santos Dumont and Congonhas, both of which are hemmed in by their central locations in Rio and Sao Paulo, at the center of domestic networks run by Gol Linhas Aereas SA and TAM, the local unit of Latam Airlines Group SA.

(Editing by Todd Benson and Jeffrey Benkoe)

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