Strike causes chaos at Brazil's airports

All flights from Brazil’s airports have been suspended amid a protest by striking air traffic controllers.

All flights from Brazil’s airports have been suspended amid a protest by striking air traffic controllers.

The 67 commercial airports in Latin America’s largest country were closed for takeoffs, but planes in flight were allowed to land normally, the government news service Agencia Brasil reported.

Thousands of passengers stranded by the protest jammed the lobbies of airports across the country, the Globo TV network reported.

Some passengers who boarded flights were forced to wait on runways for more than four hours yesterday, just days before a four-day holiday starting on Thursday for Holy Week in the world’s biggest Catholic country.

Jorge Botelho, president of the Flight Protection Workers Union, said that “all takeoffs are suspended, due to the strike by military air controllers. There are a few civil controllers, but they are very few, so in effect all flights are stopped.”

Botelho said the controllers will vote on Monday on whether to begin a national strike.

Jose Ulisses Fontenelle, former president of the Flight Controllers Association of Brasilia, said some controllers have begun a hunger strike to protest a decision by the Air Force command, which oversees the nation’s air traffic controllers, to transfer top workers to other cities, according to Agencia Brasil.

Fontenelle said the controllers viewed the transfers as a reprisal for a “work-to-rule” slowdown that controllers staged in recent weeks, the news service reported. Fontenelle said the hunger strike was intended to avert an attempt by the Air Force to confine the controllers to their offices and force them to work.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who flew to Washington yesterday for a meeting with US President George Bush, was informed of the protest, Silva’s office said.

Planning Minister Paulo Bernardo met with other Cabinet members late yesterday and went to the Air Defence Control Centre, or Cindacta, to negotiate with the controllers in a meeting called by the Air Force, Agencia Brasil reported.

The Air Force said that any controllers who did not attend the meeting would be considered protesters, but it did not say what measures it might take to punish them, according to Agencia Brasil.

On Tuesday, Silva ordered aides to set a “deadline, day and hour” to announce an end to air traffic problems, saying “there are no more excuses for society, just the solution.”

Defence Minister Waldir Pires, however, said a solution would take at least two weeks.

Botelho said frustrations boiled over among air traffic controllers.

“I think their patience has run out,” Botelho told Agencia Brasil. “I told the minister that we had run out of arguments to hold them back. I said there would be a stampede, and that’s what happened.”

This month, more than 30 percent of flights from major airports were delayed, following a failure in air traffic control in Brazil’s heavily populated southern and central areas.

Brazil’s travel headaches began last year when routes were reduced for Brazil’s one-time flagship airline Varig.

The cutback followed the September 29 crash between a Gol airlines Boeing 737 and a Embraer Legacy executive jet that killed 154 people, the deadliest air accident in Brazil’s history.

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