RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — After nearly 10 months of turmoil in this country's air traffic system, Tuesday night's passenger jet crash claiming at least 189 lives has raised red flags around the world about the ability of Brazilian authorities to secure the country's airways.
Many are asking whether Brazilian government negligence contributed to the accident, in which an Airbus 320 operated by the Brazilian airline TAM skidded off the rain-slicked main runway at the country's busiest airport, Congonhas in the city of Sao Paulo, and crashed into a gas station and cargo terminal.
The air crash, Brazil's deadliest, followed a Sept. 29, 2006, mid-air collision over the Amazon rain forest. That collision killed 154 people and had been the country's deadliest air accident.
The International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers' Associations, representing more than 50,000 members, warned in a statement Wednesday night that Brazil is in a "very deep" crisis "where air safety cannot be guaranteed anymore as the system is operated at its limits and without the required safety margins."
Experts say growth in air travel has overwhelmed the country's infrastructure, and they blamed the Brazilian air force, which oversees everything from airports to accident investigations, for blocking needed reforms.
Brazil's air system has been paralyzed by widespread flight delays and cancellations since the September accident, as flight controllers stage work slowdowns to protest conditions and investigations into their role in the accident.
Brazilian air officials insisted Wednesday that the system was safe and suggested that the jet's pilots had been flying too quickly while landing Tuesday, although they said investigations were just beginning.
The bulk of public attention, however, has focused on conditions at Congonhas, where at least five planes have skidded off the main runway, without producing casualties, during rains since last year, including one the day before Tuesday's crash. Another flight operated by TAM crashed on takeoff from Congonhas in 1996, killing 99 people.
Air officials said they had taken care of the main problem — flooding on the main runway — by repaving it. Yet they reopened the runway late last month without installing its sole drainage system, grooves in the asphalt designed to channel off water, said Kriscia Proncia, a spokeswoman for the airport authority Infraero.
Those grooves are scheduled to be installed by September, but the work could be moved up in response to Tuesday's accident, said Armando Schneider Filho, the airport authority's superintendent of engineering, in a tense news conference Wednesday night.
Schneider Filho insisted that initial inquiries suggested flooding on the runway hadn't caused Tuesday's accident, which occurred amid a steady rain. Airport authorities are required to close the runway if more than a tenth of an inch of water accumulates.
"There was no sheet of water on the runway" Tuesday afternoon, Schneider Filho said. "There was nothing to measure."
Federal prosecutors in Sao Paulo filed a motion Wednesday night asking that the airport be closed while investigations continued. The same prosecutors had filed a similar motion six months ago because of the flooding problems but rescinded it in May after air authorities agreed to renovate the runway, among other measures.
Critics, however, said the renovations didn't address the runway's main problem. At about 6,362 feet long, it doesn't give planes enough room to divert if anything goes wrong.
Responding to the prosecutor's first petition, federal Judge Ronald de Carvalho Filho issued an order in February barring Fokker 100s and two models of Boeing 737s from using the runway until it was renovated. That order was knocked down by a higher court, which ruled that adequate safety measures were already in place.
"It is noted that the main runway of Congonhas does not have escape areas," de Carvalho Filho wrote, "in the manner that, in the case of an aircraft not managing to land in the 1,980 meters of the runway, the air accident is inevitable."
Flying from the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, the Airbus 320 had touched down on the runway within its first 984 feet, the recommended area of landing, said Brazilian air force Brig. Jorge Kersul Filho, chief of the country's accident investigations unit.
But the plane veered left, escaped the airfield, crossed busy Washington Luis Avenue and slammed into a gas station and cargo building run by TAM airlines. The plane exploded on impact, incinerating its passengers and killing at least three people in the building.
Kristi Tucker, a spokesman for Airbus North America, said it was unlikely the runway was too short for the landing.
Yet Graziella Baggio, president of Brazil's National Union of Airmen, said her members have long known about the runway's problems and had asked earlier this year that it be closed until renovations were completed. Pressure from the country's airlines, including TAM, persuaded the courts to keep it open, she said. The airport's auxiliary runway reopened Wednesday to flights.
"We have received various complaints from our pilots about Congonhas, that it represented some risk," Baggio said. "Pilots continue to use the airport within this range of risk."
(McClatchy special correspondent Bianca Lemos contributed.)