Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Brazil's Olympian Task: Cleaning Junkyard Airports Before the Games. Rotting Jet Carcasses Litter Tarmacs; Plane-Loving Judge Attacks Bureaucracy

Photo Credit:  Luiz Silveira/ Agncia CNJ
Judge Marlos Melek with a decaying jet at Congonhas Airport in São Paulo.

The Wall Street Journal

BRASÍLIA—Getting Brazil's overcrowded airports ready to play host to soccer's 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games has run into an unexpected obstacle: airplane cemeteries on the tarmac.

At airfields from the muggy Amazon to bustling São Paulo, weather-stained aircraft missing doors, engines and even the odd nose cone rust away in plain sight. The failed fleet includes everything from weather-beaten Boeing 737s in Rio de Janeiro to a World War II-era Douglas C-47 cargo prop idled in the Amazonian outpost of Tabatinga. It has been sitting there for 16 years.

The junked jets are monuments to the turbulent history of Brazil's airline industry. Bankruptcies over the decades have stranded hundreds of planes in legal limbo, alongside dozens of smaller aircraft captured in drug-smuggling busts.

The planes are left to rot while Brazil's glacial courts ponder what to do with them, a process that can take more than a decade. One grounded airline, TransBrasil, went broke in 2001.

Brazil's jet junkyards are becoming an Olympian problem. Some are blocking expansions to handle planeloads of World Cup and Olympics fans.

Four rust-stained jets are impeding construction to double the terminal in the Amazonian city of Manaus, a World Cup game site.

In Brasília, the bothersome Boeings sit where a new terminal is planned.

"I've been scratching my head wondering where I can drag them next," said Antonio Silveira, a manager at Brasília's Juscelino Kubitschek airport.

Some Brazilian airports have taken to washing the unwanted jets so passengers will think they are merely waiting to take off.

Airplanes are decomposing within sight of the control tower in many Latin American cities. In the still poor region, clunkers are saved for spare parts. But Brazil stands out for the sheer size and number of junked jets impeding its aspirations to aeronautical modernity.

For years, air-traffic controllers in Brasília complained about losing visual contact with small planes as they approached the runway, where a decaying TransBrasil Boeing 767 and other jets blocked the view. Workers finally moved the jets.

Much of São Paulo's cramped Congonhas domestic airport is a ghost town of dilapidated jets wedged at odd angles among vacant hangar bays, warehouses and even a six-story office tower, all left in legal limbo by the 2005 failure of Vasp SA, among Brazil's oldest carriers.

Congonhas officials want to use the space for remote gates to ease chronic congestion and delays. But they can't touch the old Vasp complex while bankruptcy proceedings drone on.

Trying to resolve the mess is Marlos Melek, an earnest 36-year-old federal judge who spends his days investigating corruption by lower-court officials. Last year, he proposed expanding his mandate to include extracting planes from legal quagmires and helping sell them to create more airport space.

A year into the effort, called Airport Free Space, Mr. Melek has removed 14 planes. Many more should be gone in March.

The process is slow going because the bespectacled magistrate has no real authority. His mandate is to try to convince bankruptcy judges, creditors, state and federal agencies, and civil and military aviation authorities that everyone would be better off turning the planes over to him.

Mr. Melek is an avid pilot, and being a plane buff helps his cause. On a recent visit with an airport official, Mr. Melek broke the ice by displaying photos of planes on his iPhone. Then he launched his sales pitch about cleaning up the wreckage of Brazil's volatile past. It has been a long time coming, but now, Mr. Melek said, sports have made airport efficiency a priority. "People think this is all about the World Cup," he said, adding, "I don't even like soccer."

Back in 2006, Mr. Melek tried and failed to rescue a flock of commercial jets grounded five years earlier by the bankruptcy of TransBrasil. He proposed leasing the idled jets and using the revenue to pay creditors. The idea was quashed by a judge in the case.

Instead, the planes withered under the Brazilian sun and rain. Today, many are worth less per pound than discarded soda cans are, Mr. Melek estimates. "The Brazilian bureaucracy killed those planes," he said.

Mr. Melek doesn't want bureaucracy to kill again. For example, he personally retrieves planes seized in drug busts, since it can take weeks to commission professional pilots for the job. Being there helps avert appeals by defense lawyers. Since Mr. Melek is a judge, he can overrule any objections on the spot, he said.

In January, he ventured to a remote ranch on the edge of the Amazon to pick up a Cessna 206 propeller plane allegedly used to transport cocaine. Showing up unannounced at an alleged drug trafficker's ranch deep in Brazil's lawless interior can be dangerous, so Mr. Melek went with three heavily armed Federal Police and wore a pistol himself.

The Cessna's owner was already in jail. But his wife and ranch hands were there. "We wanted the element of surprise so they wouldn't have time to harm the plane, but that made our arrival very tense," he said.

Mr. Melek turns alleged drug planes over to Brazilian authorities who need them to work in areas inaccessible by road. But first Mr. Melek sticks a decal with his court's initials, CNJ, on the planes' tail fins and snaps a photo of his prized catch to email to his buddies.

So far, the aviation industry is cheering. When Mr. Melek got the green light to dismantle three crumbling Boeing 737s at Rio de Janeiro's Galeao airport, airplane maintenance firm TAP M&E Brasil SA paid the bill. The skeletal 737 remains that had been rusting outside TAP's shop for the past seven years were hurting TAP's maintenance image, Chief Executive Nestor Koch said.

But bidding farewell to the aircraft can be bittersweet, too. Josafa Candido, a 30-year Vasp veteran appointed caretaker of its Congonhas ghost town, said he was sad to see a giant airplane shredding machine ordered up by Mr. Melek reducing three Vasp Boeing 737s there to piles of scrap. "There are lifetimes in those planes," said Mr. Candido.

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