RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil—Argentine authorities are breaking international air safety norms and putting passengers at risk because they haven't fixed the country's only certified radar, which was hit by lightning on March 1, the world's main flight controllers organization said Monday.
That radar failure has led to five near-collisions between airplanes since March 9, including three last week, and represents a "careless abandonment" of aviation regulations, according to the Canada-based International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers' Associations. The organization represents 50,000 controllers worldwide.
Argentine authorities called the warning an exaggeration and said a new radar would be in place in a month. "None of the Argentine or foreign airlines have stopped flying here, nor have the pilots refused to fly," said Jorge Bernetti, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry, which oversees air traffic in Argentina.
The flight controllers' statement on the safety situation in Argentina was a rare denunciation of local conditions by the organization. On May 1, another major international group, the International Federation of Airline Pilots' Associations, advised its 100,000 members to "exercise extreme vigilance" when flying in Argentine airspace.
"We're not just trying to scare people," said Marc Baumgartner, president of the flight controller federation. "We are really worried about what's going on in Argentina."
Cesar Salas, the president of Argentina's flight controllers association, said that a May 7 United Airlines flight from Washington, D.C., to the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires came within 300 feet vertically and 4.5 miles horizontally—about 30 seconds flying time—of hitting an Andes Airlines plane. Argentina's Defense Ministry has challenged that account.
"Air safety is compromised here today," Salas said. "The problem is this is a system that's collapsed. There's no plan, and there's no effort to make the improvements that are necessary."
The bulletin added to a crisis that started last August, when a documentary detailing failures in the country's flight control system—including malfunctioning equipment and poor controller training—sparked widespread outrage.
President Nestor Kirchner said then that he would shift control of the system from military to civilian authorities, but that hasn't happen.
The crisis worsened when lightning destroyed the radar at the country's main Ezeiza airport in the capital of Buenos Aires. Government officials haven't fixed or replaced the radar, and controllers have had to guide planes all over the country based on information radioed in by pilots.
They've also limited takeoffs to one every 10 minutes and landings to one every eight minutes at Ezeiza airport.
Defense Ministry officials, however, are pressuring controllers to reduce separation between takeoffs to five minutes, said Enrique Pineyro, a former pilot who made the documentary about the country's air traffic problems.
"What the ministry is asking for is impossible in an airspace where there's no radar control," Pineyro said. "What we need is for the radar to be replaced, and there must be a reason why the government hasn't done it, but I don't know it."
Many say the meteoric growth of air travel to Argentina has overburdened the country's outdated infrastructure. International flights and departures jumped by 68 percent, to 7 million passengers a year in Argentina from 2003 to 2005.
Neighboring Brazil is facing a similar air traffic control crisis, sparked last September when a Boeing 737 flown by the Brazilian airline Gol and a corporate jet collided over the Amazon. All 154 people aboard the larger plane were killed.
On Wednesday, Brazilian police concluded their investigation into the accident by blaming the two U.S. pilots of the corporate jet for the crash. They had been barred from interviewing military-supervised flight controllers.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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