Broken Radar Sparks Argentina Safety Fears

May 19, 2007

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Two months after a bolt of lightning wrecked the radar at Argentina's main international airport, pilots and air-traffic controllers say the government response has been too slow and passenger safety is at risk.

One pilots' association has reported several near-misses, although another group of pilots and government officials accuse it of alarmism.

"The (defense) ministry... has tried to cover up all the problems that exist," said Jorge Perez Tamayo, president of Argentina's Association of Airline Pilots (APLA).

Earlier this week, an international body representing air-traffic controllers also criticized the government for its slow response since the March 1 lightning strike.

"Any decision to delay the repair and return to service of this essential piece of radar equipment displays a level of disrespect for air safety in general and for the traveling public in particular," the Canada-based International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers' Associations said.

Argentina's defense ministry, which is responsible for the air force that controls air traffic, says pilots would refuse to fly to the South American country if the situation was as risky as critics say.

"An international airline, an American airline, wouldn't fly to Argentina if there was a risk. It would have legal consequences for the company's managers," ministry spokesman Jorge Bernetti said, responding to the near-daily criticism by APLA pilots.

He said the primary radar at Ezeiza, the country's main international airport, was being repaired and a replacement was being sent by Spain on loan.

At Buenos Aires' Jorge Newbery Airport, which serves domestic flights, some passengers said they were concerned by the reported near-misses.

"It causes a feeling of insecurity and risk, both for Argentine passengers and foreigners, who aren't used to these things like we are," said Ana Giese, a Buenos Aires student.

Air safety has been under close scrutiny in Argentina since a documentary film last year exposed flaws in the air-traffic control system at a time when air travel is growing.

The documentary prompted President Nestor Kirchner to announce the transfer of air-traffic control from the air force to a new civilian authority. Officials blame the system's shortcomings on years of under-investment by past governments.

In the absence of a primary radar, pilots rely on a more basic secondary radar system and leave a minimum 10 minute gap between take-offs. That has meant delays for passengers who had already faced a string of strikes by airline staff in recent months.

Enrique Pineyro, a former pilot who made last year's documentary "Air Force Ltd" ("Fuerza Aerea Sociedad Anonima"), said the current safety row reflected wider problems.

"Historically, the policy has been one of denial," he said. "The foreign airlines believe what the authority tells them. It doesn't occur to them that the authority lies."