(Adds Jobim comment, updates number of delays)
By Natuza Nery
BRASILIA, July 25 (Reuters) - President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva fired his defense minister on Wednesday, heeding calls for the removal of top aviation officials after nearly 200 people were killed last week in Brazil’s worst air crash.
Waldir Pires was forced out as defense minister after two deadly plane crashes in less than a year and months of chaos in Brazil’s air traffic system, which is run by the military.
Nelson Jobim, a retired Supreme Court judge and former justice minister with close ties to Lula, replaced Pires.
"At this time, we needed someone with a different profile to lead the ministry and especially to deal with the aviation crisis," said Marcelo Baumbach, the presidential spokesman.
Pires had been under pressure to resign since last September, when a Boeing 737 operated by Brazilian airline Gol Linhas Aereas clipped wings in midair with a private jet and crashed in the Amazon jungle. All 154 people on board died.
Lula, who has been criticized for being slow in reacting to crises, had been reluctant to dismiss his longtime friend, a veteran leftist like the president.
But the pressure to oust him mounted after an Airbus A320 flown by Brazilian carrier TAM Linhas Aereas skidded off a rain-slicked runway last week at Sao Paulo’s Congonhas Airport and barreled into a cargo terminal and gas station.
All 187 people on board and at least 12 on the ground were killed in the worst aviation accident in Brazil’s history, causing a national outcry for improvements in air safety.
Jobim told reporters after taking office that he would decide by the weekend whether to replace officials at the airports authority, Infraero. The leadership of Jose Carlos Pereira, its chief, was questioned during the crisis.
Jobim will also have to find ways to restore a sense of normalcy at Brazilian airports, which have been plagued by delays and cancellations since the Gol crash last year exposed serious flaws in the country’s aviation system.
Lula said Jobim would have free rein to do what it takes to fix the ailing aviation system.
"From this moment on, we are going to do what has to be done ... and spend what has to be spent," the president said at Jobim’s swearing-in ceremony.
AIRPORT CHAOS CONTINUES
Air traffic controllers, fearing they were being blamed for the aviation woes, have periodically held work slowdowns to protest outdated radar and radio equipment and poor salaries.
The crisis deepened over the weekend when a radar outage in the Amazon forced more than a dozen international flights to change course, causing delays in Brazil and the United States. Bad weather and a runway problem in Sao Paulo have added to the woes, leaving passengers stranded at airports all over Brazil.
More than half of all flights in the country were delayed or canceled on Wednesday for the fourth straight day, according to Infraero. By evening, at least 584 flights were behind schedule and 358 more had been canceled.
To reduce the delays and cancellations, Brazil’s aviation authority has temporarily suspended ticket sales for flights to and from Congonhas, the country’s busiest airport. TAM and Gol, the nation’s top two airlines, have also urged passengers to postpone travel plans until air traffic normalizes.
Pires’ handling of the aviation crisis was widely criticized as ineffective. He struggled to assert his authority over the military, which is in charge of the controllers, and he became the public face of Brazil’s air travel woes.
Several aviation experts say inexperience, negligence and budget cutbacks are to blame for the crisis. The government has also been criticized for not investing enough in airports to keep up with a sharp jump in air traffic in recent years. (Additional reporting by Todd Benson and Raymond Colitt)