Virtually all takeoffs from three major airports in Brazil were canceled Tuesday night after an air traffic communications system broke down, making it difficult for controllers to communicate with pilots and creating air travel chaos.
Brazil's Civil Aviation Authority said in a statement that takeoffs were banned at the airport in the capital of Brasilia and in the large central city of Belo Horizonte. Many takeoffs were also canceled at the airport in Sao Paulo that handles domestic flights, though the authority allowed flights to continue on the busy Sao Paulo-Rio de Janeiro shuttle route.
Authorities were still allowing planes to land at the three airports and almost all international flights departing Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest city, take off from a separate airport unaffected by the government order. But the Belo Horizonte and Brasilia airports also serve some international destinations, and all takeoffs were prohibited from those airports.
The problem emerged when a communications system in Brasilia inexplicably broke down, reducing the number of radio frequencies and making it hard for controllers to reach pilots flying commercial jets in some of Brazil's busiest air traffic corridors, the government's Agencia Brasil news agency reported.
The breakdown initially caused huge delays Tuesday morning, prompting passengers to sleep on airport floors. Authorities decided later to cancel the takeoffs at the three airports until the communications system is repaired.
The aviation authority said the system could be repaired by Wednesday, but warned travelers to check on flights with airlines and acknowledged that the incident was Brazil's most disruptive air traffic communications failure in history.
"There has never been a collapse like this," Milton Zuanazzi, who heads the aviation authority, told Folha de S. Paulo.
It also came as most air travelers in Latin America's largest nation have had to put up with more than a month of serious flight delays sparked by a job protest by controllers.
Following Brazil's worst-ever air crash disaster, the controllers began following regulations to the letter in a protest that significantly slowed operations and is having a financial impact on Brazilian airlines.
Under the "work to rule" campaign, they have refused to handle more than the limit of flights recommended under international standards and are strictly observing times between landings and takeoffs. The protest came amid complaints that Brazilian controllers are overworked, underpaid and understaffed despite strong commercial flight growth in recent years.
The commander of Brazil's air traffic control system was subsequently dismissed late last month, though Defense Minister Waldir Pires insisted that the move was a routine transfer. But it came just days after shares in Gol and Brazil's Tam Linhas Aereas SA airline fell because of continued flight delays that government officials had said they would solve.
Authorities are still investigating whether actions by controllers played a role in the Sept. 29 mid-air crash above the Amazon jungle that killed 154 people in a collision between a Gol airlines Boeing 737 and an Embraer Legacy 600 executive jet.
All of the passengers on the Gol Linhas Aereas Inteligentes SA flight died, but the pilots of the executive jet managed to bring their plane down with no injuries to the seven on board.
Brazilian authorities prevented the two American executive jet pilots from leaving the country as investigators probed the crash, but a court ruled Tuesday that they can pick up their passports and leave Brazil within 72 hours. They have been holed up in a hotel fronting Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana beach for more than two months.
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