The World’s Worst Airline

A TAM plane crashed in Brazil Tuesday. I wasn’t surprised.

A TAM Linhas Aereas SATAM airlines plane. Click image to expand.
A TAM plane

TAM Linhas Aereas is the worst airline in the world. I’ve been saying that repeatedly since early April, when my boyfriend and I took a short vacation in Brazil and returned happy with our stay but traumatized by the air travel. So Tuesday, when a TAM Linhas Aereas Airbus A320 on an inbound domestic route skidded off the São Paulo airport runway, tried to take off again, and crashed into a cargo building owned by the same carrier, exploding on impact and incinerating nearly 200 people, I felt angrily (and OK, smugly) justified in my condemnation.

It’s not entirely TAM’s fault it’s a terrible airline; it’s also Brazil’s fault. And Tuesday’s horrible accident illustrates why. Click here for an account of a typical TAM flight.

We flew TAM from New York to São Paulo and then to Manaus, back to São Paulo then to Rio, back to São Paulo again, then back to New York, all in the space of nine days—an itinerary that would have been brutal even without complications—and every single flight was delayed by several hours or canceled. My boyfriend, who’s been a travel writer for more than 15 years and has landed on runways consisting mostly of grass, with a cinderblock terminal building and the local welcoming party covered in nothing but mud and chicken feathers, still insists that TAM was the worst air travel experience he’s ever had.

Some of the delays were bureaucratic and intrinsic to TAM, but many of them were intrinsic to the state-run airports and caused by the difficulty of managing foot traffic in relatively small terminals that were not designed to handle the number of travelers they were getting—a number that has increased exponentially with Brazil’s Rio-centric tourist boom.

In many cases, the semblance of order was considered just as good as actual order, and the most obvious manifestation of this pseudo-organization is the creation of neat, orderly lines of people. Passengers are kept in line, literally and figuratively. For our part, this often meant standing in line for an hour in order to be allowed to stand in another line, which in turn led to another line, which was, if we were lucky, the actual ticketing line. Then there was the security line, the boarding line, and sometimes another security line, in case the first one missed the inevitable bottle of breast milk or tube of hair gel the would-be terrorist might use to hijack a plane.

Standing in line was second only to waiting while receiving no new information as the quintessential experience of Brazilian air travel. After finally boarding a flight from Manaus to São Paulo, we sat for several hours and were served dinner by the flight crew—perhaps out of concern that the passengers would begin feeding on each other if left alone much longer, but mostly to compensate for not being able to update the passengers lest they grow mutinous. When it was manifestly clear that everyone had forced themselves to eat, perhaps fearing an overnight stay on the Manaus tarmac, we were told to disembark because the flight was canceled. More than an hour later, the luggage arrived.

Not content to leave the airport without one last episode of standing in line, we queued to get vouchers for the designated hotel, grandiosely named the “Taj Mahal,” which in giant faux gold letters affixed to the entrance declared itself to be a five-star establishment—because no one else would possibly declare it as such—and featured a revolving rooftop restaurant with an Astroturf floor that creaked slowly clockwise to give diners a 360-degree view of Manaus’ more colorful Dumpsters. After our scenic breakfast in motion the next morning, we arrived several hours early at the airport, stood in line for the requisite half-day, and waited expectantly to be told that our flight was delayed. We were not disappointed.

TAM’s Monty Python-esque bumbling is a function of being one of only a handful of competitors in the market and the general complacency of their regular customers. As we watched customers scrambling between the gate bound for Buenos Aires (marked “New York”) and the gate bound for New York (marked “Buenos Aires”), it was unsurprising to find a woman in front of us in the middle of a nervous breakdown, screaming at a TAM attendant and crying hysterically. It was very surprising to find that no one else was screaming. If there were more efficient alternatives and a larger business class of travelers who considered air travel a necessity in a large country where driving to and from the largest cities is neither practical nor in some cases feasible, market pressure alone would precipitate some material changes.

But the larger problems can be attributed to the constraints under which Brazil forces TAM to operate. For example: We could have been delayed on three flights instead of six, as we would have skipped São Paulo entirely except for the fact that nearly every flight to a major Brazilian city from a major metropolitan area is compulsively routed through the largest city in the country. If you want to fly direct, it probably won’t be on a Brazilian carrier. As it happens, the largest city’s airport has the most infamously short runway. The runway at São Paulo is 6,362 feet long, 641 feet shorter than LaGuardia and too short for the pilot of Flight 3054 to land safely on a wet surface, which caused him to try to take off again with catastrophic results. This is normal procedure in São Paulo. Pilots are instructed to do it when the allotted stretch of runway doesn’t suffice. To add to the risk, the runway was repaved in June, which may have resulted in the already dangerously short runway being dangerously slippery as well.

If you manage to make it safely onto or off of the runway, you still have to contend with Brazilian air traffic control, which is controlled by the Brazilian military, an increasingly disenfranchised institution that has resisted transition to civilian control, perhaps because in peacetime, it needs as many reasons to justify its existence as are available. Air traffic infrastructure is woefully out of date, and upgrading it, while ultimately necessary, is considered too expensive. The consequences of Brazil’s patchy radar system were particularly apparent in September when a Boeing 737 operated by another major Brazilian airline hit a private jet over part of the Amazon, with 154 casualties—an event that was followed by an air traffic control strike because workers felt they were being unfairly blamed for the accident.

Brazilian air traffic control workers also complain about pay rates and a shortage of staff. An increase in either would mean more state expenditures, which the state has so far been unwilling to make.

The alternative, of course, is to force Brazilian air travel to conform to the limitations of the country’s existing infrastructure. This would mean scheduling fewer flights, which would result in less revenue from tourism, which is increasingly responsible for the country’s economic growth. State officials are not willing to do this either.

As long as the São Paulo runway stays too short, the air-traffic controllers stay underpaid and badly equipped, the market stays uncompetitive, and state officials stay in denial about the inevitability of more and worse accidents stemming from overcapacity in an already strained system, the likelihood that Tuesday’s accident won’t be, as news reports called it, “the country’s worst air disaster” only increases. And however gorgeous it is, I won’t be heading back to Brazil anytime soon.