Prosecutors Seek to Shut Down Sao Paulo Airport After Aborted Landing

A TAM jet pulled out of an attempted landing Thursday at Sao Paulo's Congonhas airport, and federal prosecutors sought a court order to shut down the entire airport — Brazil's busiest — until the investigation into this week's crash that killed at least 189 people was completed.

The TAM jet was rerouted to Sao Paulo's international airport after coming in at an unsafe angle to Congonhas, the nation's airport authority Infraero said.

Critics condemned the government for failing to invest in safety measures adopted by other urban airports following Tuesday night's crash of another TAM plane that killed all 186 people on board and three on the ground.

It was Brazil's second major air disaster in less than a year.

Late Wednesday, federal prosecutors asked for a court order to shut down Congonhas. It was unclear when judges would rule on the request for the airport that lies in the heart of Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest city.

Doing so would likely create huge problems for civil aviation throughout Latin America's largest nation because Congonhas is a key hub, but prosecutors called the move essential to ensuring air safety.

"It is necessary to temporarily paralyze the activities at the Congonhas airport in Sao Paulo until a complete renovation of both of its runways can be completed and there is certainty that they are fully secure," prosecutors said in a statement.

At least 180 bodies had been retrieved from the site where the Airbus-320 crashed Tuesday, igniting a fireball.

A 35-year-old man who held both American and Brazilian citizenship was among the dead, said Richard Mei, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia. Mei declined to identify him.

The plane slammed into a TAM airlines building after narrowly clearing the airport's perimeter fence and rush-hour traffic on a surrounding highway. Three people on the ground also died and another 11 were hospitalized.

Armando Schneider Filho, director of engineering for the nation's airport authority Infraero, said the runway would remain closed for 20 days.

The crash came less than a year after 154 people were killed in the September collision of a Gol Airlines Boeing 737 with a small jet over the Amazon rainforest.

"It's been 10 months since the last worst air accident in Brazilian history and now we've had an accident worse than that," said David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia. "If you look at what's happened since September, the answer is nothing."

"It was a tragedy foretold," said political commentator Lucia Hippolito. "The government has done nothing because of administrative inefficiency and simple incompetence."

For months, air safety concerns have been aired in congressional hearings, and pilots and traffic controllers have worried for years about the short, slippery runways at Brazil's busiest airport.

Landing on the 6,362-foot runway at Congonhas airport is so challenging that pilots liken it to an aircraft carrier — if they don't touch down within the tarmac's first 1,000 feet, they're warned to pull up and circle around again. The ungrooved runway becomes even more treacherous in the rain, when it turns into a slick landing surface.

On the day before the crash, two other planes skidded off the runway's end.

Congressional investigations have raised questions about Brazil's underfunded air traffic control system, deficient radar and lack of investment in infrastructure, even as airlines struggle to cope with a surge in air travel caused by the booming economy.

President Luis Inacio da Silva has been unable to wrest control of the civil aviation system from the military, which oversees Brazil's air traffic controllers and has filled top positions at the national aviation agency with political appointees.

Defense Minister Waldir Pires warned people not to point fingers.

"It's a moment for caution, and until the results of the investigation are known, it's better to maintain sobriety and avoid quick judgments," Pires said.

But Schneider denied the runway was to blame for the crash.

"I can confirm that there was no possibility of skidding on this runway," he said. "Twenty minutes before the accident, Infraero performed a visual inspection of the runway and detected no problems. It was wet, but there was no accumulation of water."

The airport recently resurfaced the runway to provide better braking in rainy conditions. However, the new surface hadn't dried enough for the next step — cutting deep grooves into the tarmac.

Brig. Jorge Kersul Filho, director of the air force's Center for Investigation and Prevention of Air Accidents, said it appeared the pilot had tried to take off again before the crash.

"That he jumped over the avenue was an indication he tried to take off. If he didn't, he would have gone nose down at the end of the runway," he said.

Video of the landing, released by the air force Wednesday night, shows Flight 3054 from Porto Alegre coming in much faster than other planes landing at the same time.

The plane's flight data and cockpit voice recorders were being sent to the United States for analysis. Meanwhile, French and U.S. safety investigators are assisting the Brazilians in probing the cause of the crash.

Like many congested urban airports, Sao Paulo's domestic air travel hub is surrounded by development and has no room for the runway extensions recommended by air safety groups. New York's LaGuardia Airport, by contrast, has a 7,003-feet runway.

The International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations said the accident shows the need for the next best thing — braking systems of soft cement beyond the runway, where wheels can sink in and slow the jets to a safe stop.

Known as an arrestor bed, the system has prevented several planes from ending up in the bay next to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, said Gideon Ewers, the pilot group's spokesman.

The accident is certain to have political ramifications, however, if only because the dead included Rep. Julio Redecker, 51, a leader of the opposition Brazilian Social Democracy Party and vocal critic of Silva's handling of the aviation crisis.

Concerned about being made scapegoats, controllers have engaged in strikes and work slowdowns to raise safety concerns, causing months of delays and cancelations.

Through it all, one of the most glaring problems has been the runway at Congonhas. In addition to the two planes that skidded off the runway Monday, a Boeing 737-400 overshot it in a heavy rain on March 22, stopping just short of a steep drop-off.

In February, a federal court briefly banned three types of large jets from the runway, but was overruled on appeal. Airbus-320s were not covered under the ban.