Brazil is one of those foreign places that most Americans have at least heard of, and even have a somewhat vaguely accurate picture in their head. Ask the proverbial Man on the Street about Brazil, and the answer will most likely include beaches, bikinis, and Carnival, maybe also soccer. And indeed, those are all very much a part of Brazil, past and present. But Brazil also holds for us an object lesson in how government incompetence - not greed, not really bribery even, certainly not totalitarianism, just simple incompetence - can make life difficult on an otherwise free and vibrant economy.
On July 17, a plane crash at Brazil's Congonhas airport killed around 200 people. This was Brazil's worst air disaster. Ah well, an old plane, third-world pilots, that's only to be expected, you might think. Not so! The airliner was a decade-old Airbus A320, no different from thousands of planes used in America and Europe every day, and younger than hundreds operated by major U.S. airlines. While it's far too early to rule out maintenance errors, there's no particularly bad reputation for maintenance by TAM, the airline involved. And likewise, while pilot error is being investigated too, Brazilian pilots are generally trained to international standards. So the disaster can't be simply written off as "one of those things that happen."
As with most every disaster, there is unlikely to be a single cause - probably quite a few things went wrong, any one of which, had it gone differently, would have avoided the deaths of 200 people. But it seems to be clear that conditions at the airport were, at the least, a significant contributing factor.
Congonhas airport is an older airport very close to the Sao Paulo city center, somewhat like Washington, DC's Reagan National Airport or New York's La Guardia. It was built when planes were smaller and there were fewer of them. Today, however, air traffic in Brazil is booming. Brazil is an enormous country, and though it has a lot of poor people, it also has enough of a middle and upper class to support surprisingly intensive domestic air travel. In many cases, there is simply no other practical way to get from city to city; half of Brazil is the Amazon jungle, where few roads go, and nothing like American interstates exist. If you have business in another city, air is the only way, and Sao Paulo is Brazil's "second city." Think Chicago. If you've ever flown through there, well, you get the idea.
Given the importance of air travel to Brazil's economy, and the importance of Sao Paulo, you'd think its airport would be a top priority. But in Brazil, the operation of the air system is handled by the government, between the military and the Infraero department, and the sector has been starved of investment for years. Air traffic controllers and other air infrastructure workers regularly strike to protest conditions. In fact, just this past February, a judge banned 737 and F100 jets from using Congonhas airport, on the grounds that the runway was too short and it was too dangerous. This decision was overruled because of the economic impact of closing the country's busiest airfield. Then the day before the fatal crash, another plane slid off the end of the runway, stopping just feet before it fell off a cliff.
The problem isn't that the runway is too short, exactly. They're definitely on the short side, but they do meet standards (barely). The trouble is that there are other things which would help make things safer, which have not been done. As with cars on roads, airplane tires grip the runway better when the pavement is dry. So you try to design things so that rainwater runs off quickly, such as grinding grooves (like tire treads) into the pavement. This wasn't done, yet the runway was in use under heavy rain conditions. Again, new technology called EMAS arresting beds puts special shock-absorbing material off the end of a runway, to "catch" a plane that goes off the end. Congonhas had nothing like that.
Well, maybe it takes a disaster to focus the government on fixing a problem? Alas, no. That's already happened. On September 29, 2006, a 737 jetliner collided with a private jet, and crashed in the remote Amazon jungle, killing all aboard. Now how could a collision possibly happen, with modern radar systems? But that's exactly the problem - Brazil does not HAVE a radar system over large parts of its territory where planes fly. Basically, the controllers send the plane into the "dead zone," and say, "Check back in with us when you come out the other side." Sooner or later, a collision was bound to happen. Again, the problem wasn't an ancient, badly-maintained plane, or pilot incompetence - it was caused simply by government strategic negligence and incompetence.
Today, Brazil's transportation network is in chaos. Nobody wants to die; but if there's no other way to get around the country, what do you do? Not go? What kind of impact on the economy would that cause, if businessmen are afraid to take their business trips? What impact on personal freedom and mobility?
The lesson to be learned here is not that bureaucrats are lazy. We don't see evidence of specific incompetent government employees who can be blamed and strung up. Who is responsible for not spending millions of dollars on improved infrastructure, and how would it be fair to assess personal blame? You could try to hold elected representatives responsible, and that makes some sense - but even there, infrastructure projects like new airports and radar systems, generally take longer than one election cycle. The trouble is, the buck doesn't stop anywhere for things that don't get done.
Is this beneath us? Well, on December 8, 2005, a Southwest Airlines jet skidded off the end of a runway in snowy conditions at Midway Airport, Chicago, winding up in the street outside the airport, but fortunately killing only one. Again, Midway is an inner-city airport with short runways, that had no good overrun area or EMAS arresting beds.
It still doesn't. Has anyone in the government paid any price? Not hardly; we just cross our fingers and keep on going, just like the Brazilians. Food for thought as we consider a government-run health service.