July 26, 2007 / 7:36 PM / in 10 years

New Brazil defense chief: air safety over comfort

3 Min Read

BRASILIA, July 26 (Reuters) - Brazil's new defense minister said on Thursday that he will prioritize air safety even if it means more delays for passengers, who are still rattled from a plane crash that killed around 200 people last week.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva appointed Nelson Jobim defense minister on Wednesday to tackle a 10-month aviation crisis that produced two major accidents and pushed air travel to the brink of collapse.

The defense ministry controls the airports authority Infraero and the Air Force oversees air traffic.

"If air safety means queues for some time longer, then there will be more queues," Jobim, a former chief justice of Brazil's Supreme Court, said in a news conference.

He echoed criticism that Infraero had prioritized comfort over safety in past years, building shopping malls and food courts in airports rather than new runways.

"I arrive early for flights and appreciate (the shops and the air conditioning) but we have to set our priorities ... if the price of security is discomfort, so be it."

Investigators say a slippery runway at Sao Paulo's Congonhas airport may have contributed to the crash of an Airbus A320 operated by TAM Linhas Aereas TAMM4.SATAM.N. The jet overshot the runway on July 17 and rammed into a cargo terminal and gas station, killing all 187 people on board and at least 12 on the ground. Other possible causes being investigated are pilot and mechanical errors.

The situation at most Brazilian airports appeared slightly less chaotic on Thursday, as many passengers heeded airline calls to postpone travel until air traffic returns to normal.

By midday, 38 percent of flights were canceled at Congonhas, compared to 83 percent on Wednesday.

Airlines are waiting for the main landing strip at Congonhas to reopen on Friday. They also plan to use other airports in greater Sao Paulo to alleviate congestion at Congonhas, which is the country's busiest airport. Delays there have a ripple effect nationwide.

After a week of chaos, many passengers have come to expect the worst. One family at Rio de Janeiro airport brought two mattresses in anticipation of long waits.

"If the plane is delayed, I'm not going to force my daughters to sleep on the floor," Carlos Alberto, a civil servant, told Globo TV.

Jobim also promised that a likely shuffle of aviation officials would be nonpartisan. His comments followed widespread criticism that Lula had appointed friends and political allies to key posts at Infraero and the civil aviation authority ANAC, instead of choosing experts.

"In the (aviation) sector you can't take decisions based on party origins," Jobim said. "We have to reevaluate the entire system."

Additional reporting by Guido Nejamkis

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