RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — After 10 months of aviation turmoil that peaked last week in Brazil's deadliest air accident, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has begun shaking up his country's troubled air-traffic system.
Lula, who's been criticized for inaction during the crisis, fired his embattled defense minister, Waldir Pires, on Wednesday and replaced him with Nelson Jobim, who's a former president of the country's Supreme Court and a former justice minister.
Brazil's Defense Ministry oversees the country's civil aviation, and the 80-year-old Pires has been criticized for failing to resolve an air-traffic meltdown that's seen more than 350 people die in two major air accidents in less than 10 months.
Federal officials and airlines restricted ticket sales this week for flights using the country's two busiest airports, both serving the city of Sao Paulo.
"We need to rethink the Defense Ministry in this country," Lula said Wednesday at a ceremony marking the switch in ministers. "We need a Defense Ministry with sufficient strength to make the changes that need to be made."
He did little to reassure Brazilians that flying would be safe soon, and admitted that he feared air travel. "When I travel, I deliver myself to God," he said.
Jobim, who's 61, said at a news conference that he had the authority to rebuild the aviation system, but he didn't offer a timeline for ending the crisis.
"We have to re-establish a system that works and not a system that depends on people to work," he said.
Aviation expert Luis Alexandre Fuccille said Wednesday's firing was a positive first step to fixing a system long scrambled by competing regulatory agencies. The Defense Ministry, created only in 1999, has been unable so far to bring the country's aviation system — or its armed forces — under centralized civilian control.
"We see these authorities butting heads all the time, and Pires was never able to get them in line," Fuccille said. "Jobim has no experience in aviation or defense but is very respected and may have better luck."
The crisis began last September when a Boeing 737 operated by the Brazilian airline Gol clipped an executive jet that U.S. pilots were flying over the Amazon rain forest. The collision sent the Boeing plunging into the jungle, killing all 154 people on board.
Flight controllers, who operate under military supervision, responded to the accident by limiting — without authorization — the number of flights they monitor simultaneously, causing widespread delays and cancellations in Latin America's biggest country.
Despite evidence suggesting that flight controllers may have placed both planes at the same altitude at the time of the crash, Lula's government made no significant changes to the air traffic system, and no one was held responsible.
The president, however, was forced to act after an Airbus A320 run by the Brazilian airline TAM skidded off a rain-slicked runway July 17 at Congonhas airport in Sao Paulo, overshot the airfield and slammed into a cargo terminal run by the same airline. The crash and resulting explosion killed 199 people, including 187 on the plane, airline representatives said Wednesday.
"The situation has really become a crisis for the president," political analyst Alessandra Alde said. "He had to take some kind of visible action."
Jorge Carlos Botelho, the head of a union that represents flight controllers and technicians, said the firings in themselves wouldn't resolve anything.
"We can't just change the ministers," he said. "We need to change the entire system and the way management is run."
Since last year, at least five other planes have skidded off the main runway at Congonhas, without producing casualties. Critics say the 6,362-foot-long runway is too short for modern jets and is apt to flood. It was repaved earlier this year and reopened last month, but without grooves that could channel off water. It's been closed since the accident, and aircraft have been using an even shorter auxiliary runway.
This week, aviation officials have closed the airport repeatedly as rain returns to the Sao Paulo area, snaring air traffic all over the country. About 60 percent of Wednesday's flights in Brazil had been delayed or canceled as of 3:30 p.m.
The country's civil aviation agency suspended ticket sales Tuesday for flights originating at Congonhas until passenger flows return to normal. TAM and other major airlines also have stopped selling tickets for flights using Sao Paulo's main international airport in Guarulhos, which has been overloaded with flights diverted from Congonhas.
Adding to the aviation woes, an electrical outlet cut radar coverage over a swath of the Brazilian Amazon for more than three hours last Saturday, forcing more than a dozen flights from the United States and other countries to return to their points of origin or land elsewhere.
Despite public outrage over last week's crash, Lula waited more than 72 hours after the tragedy to speak about it publicly, while aviation officials said they weren't to blame.