SAO PAULO – Brazil faces a last-minute scramble to get its notoriously crowded and shabby airports into shape for a huge influx of World Cup fans next June, as delays have left planners with barely any time to spare.
"There is no room for error when it comes to the work at the World Cup airports," says Jose Wilson Massa, a consultant in airport management. "Nothing can go wrong now."
Brazil is upgrading airports in all 12 of the World Cup host cities, but in some cases the work started only this year.
The country has no viable rail system and nearly all the travel between the venues will have to be done by air. Even before Brazil was picked to host football's marquee tournament and the 2016 Olympics, it was becoming clear that its airports needed improvement to cope with demand generated by a healthy economy.
"Brazil needed to start improving its infrastructure 10 years ago," said Nicolau Gualda, a transportation expert and a professor at the University of Sao Paulo. "And not only in the airports, the transportation problem in Brazil has existed for a long time and something had to be done way before the World Cup."
The government acknowledges that there are some problems, but says it is paying close attention to ensure that deadlines are met and remains confident that everything will be ready in time.
However, deadlines have already been pushed back at several airports. At nearly all of them, the work isn't expected to be finished before March — three months before the tournament kicks off — and in some cases it is expected only in May.
The schedule looks particularly tight in the northeastern city of Natal, where a contract between the government and a consortium that runs the airport states that the project doesn't have to be completed until after the World Cup, and a government website monitoring the airport projects says it's expected to be finished in June. The consortium, however, is insisting that it will complete the work by next April.
According to Infraero, the state-run agency that runs most Brazilian airports, some projects in Cuiaba, Belo Horizonte, Fortaleza, Salvador and Rio de Janeiro were less than 30 percent complete by June — a year before kickoff. Work on terminals in Curitiba and Salvador started only this year.
Only about $600 million of the $3 billion allocated for the 30 projects planned for the World Cup airports has been spent so far, according to figures on the government website.
The government said in an emailed statement to The Associated Press that its civil aviation secretariat "has intensified the monitoring of the work at the airports in the host cities."
"Engineers are conducting regular visits to the construction sites to identify the challenges and the obstacles that could keep the work from progressing," it added.
Infraero, the airport agency, said that "all efforts are being made" to ensure that the airports are ready for the World Cup and "the great majority of the work ... is already under way."
Civil Aviation Minister Moreira Franco conceded a few months ago that there were "delays in the work in several airports."
"I have said that, regarding the airports for the World Cup, we don't have a Plan B, only a Plan A," he told Brazilian media. "The timetable is set and the airports need to be ready to be operating and attending to the demands we will have during the tournament."
That will entail handling an expected 600,000 international visitors — as well as some 3 million Brazilians expected to travel during the World Cup.
The local World Cup organizing committee declined to comment on the situation at the airports, saying they are the responsibility of the local government.
Massa, the consultant — and a former superintendent at airports in Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte — said he doesn't think Brazil will face chaos during the World Cup.
"From what I'm seeing so far, all the current work under way at the airports will be completed in time," he said. "I think there is a need to be extra careful in the cities of Cuiaba and Natal, but the situation of the airports in general should not cause great concern during the World Cup next year."
A few problems were reported during the Confederations Cup in June, which served as a warm-up for local organizers, but Brazil's airports mostly passed that test. Only eight nations participated in the tournament, however, and only about three percent of the fans came from abroad — in contrast to what's expected for the monthlong, 32-nation World Cup.
A few years ago, Ricardo Teixeira, then president of the Brazilian football federation, warned that Brazil had three main problems to solve ahead of the World Cup: "Airports, airports and airports."
The coming 10 months will show whether he was right.
Follow Tales Azzoni at http://twitter.com/tazzoni