Clearing the Runways

This past week a lot of ink was spilled about Brazil’s preparations (or lack thereof) to host the 2014 World Cup. The Secretary General of FIFA, Jérôme Valcke, sparked a national uproar when he put his cleats in his mouth by stating that Brazil needed “a kick in the ass” in order to meet its deadlines. With little more than two years before the big event, Valcke expressed alarm that there would be nowhere near enough accommodations and transportation options to welcome the hundreds of thousands of foreign soccer fans that are expected to descend upon the country’s 10 chosen host cities.

Brazilian economic history is rife with notorious booms and busts: sugar cane, gold, rubber, cocoa, to name a few.

Among the biggest and most oft cited delays are those revolving around the direly needed expansion of Brazil’s airports. This urgency isn’t only in response to the projected flood of travelers expected for the World Cup, but for the daily flood of Brazilian travelers who are responsible for record-breaking levels of air travel (between 2010 and 2011, international air traffic increased by 14 percent at Brazil’s airports while domestic travel saw a spike of 16 percent). Although there are many excuses being bandied around to explain the delays, one of the most deliriously offbeat is the fact that many major airports are littered with rotting airplane carcasses that have transformed hangars and runways into aviation cemeteries.

Brazilian economic history is rife with notorious booms and busts: sugar cane, gold, rubber, cocoa, to name a few. Less known is the demise of many of the country’s major airline companies in recent years. Taking a tarmac tour of some of the country’s airports, however, offers a first-hand glimpse of the fates of formerly big players such as VASP and Transbrasil, both of which bit the dust in the last decade.

The problem is that once these airlines go belly up, the aircraft remain frozen in time – and place – while the courts sort out issues pertaining to bankruptcy. This being Brazil, the bureaucracy is nothing less than baroque and involves bankruptcy judges, creditors, state and federal agencies, and civil and military aviation authorities all arguing over what to do with these junkyard jets. In the meantime, the planes in question – over 100 of them on tarmacs throughout the land – take up precious space that has been earmarked for projects such as expanding preexisting terminals (the case of World Cup host city, Manaus) or constructing entirely new ones (the case of World Cup host city, Brasília).

The biggest cemetery of all is São Paulo’s already super-congested Congonhas domestic airport where an area the equivalent to three soccer fields is littered with decaying planes belonging to VASP, one of Brazil’s oldest airlines. The Boeing 737s have been quietly rotting here since the company went out of business in 2005. In terms of size, they constitute Brazil’s third largest commercial air fleet – despite the fact that they are all literally falling apart. In terms of expenses, the parking space allotted to each aircraft costs an estimated R$1,200 (roughly US$670) a day.

Fortunately, hope is on the horizon in the superheroic figure of Marlos Melek. A 36-year-old federal judge, Melek is a man with a mission; to free up space at Brazil’s airports by helping abandoned planes find a final resting place. Although Melek’s task is complicated by the fact that his mandate isn’t an official one, in the year since he took command of the task force known as Airport Free Space, he has succeeded in removing over a dozen planes from Brazil’s runways, among them a trio of the decaying Boeing 737s in Congonhas. While some planes are dismantled so that their parts can be auctioned off, others are so far gone that the only possible solution is to shred them into scrap metal.

An airplane aficionado and pilot himself, Merek’s motivation is less about helping Brazil meet its FIFA obligations than making Brazil’s aviation sector more modern and efficient. As he stated in an interview published in the Wall Street Journal: “People think this is all about the World Cup, but I don’t even like soccer.”


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