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Brazilian defense chief fired after crash

Wreck killing 199 caps chaotic year for airline system

SAO PAULO -- The president fired the defense minister yesterday after a year of chaos in Brazil's military-controlled aviation system, including a jetliner crash that killed nearly 200 people last week.

Defense Minister Waldir Pires came under withering criticism for problems ranging from radar outages to work slowdowns that caused dayslong delays and flight cancellations at Brazilian airports.

The outrage mounted after a TAM Linhas Aereas SA jet crashed last week at Sao Paulo's Congonhas airport, killing 199 people. The cause has not been determined.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said that Pires would be replaced by former Supreme Court president Nelson Jobim.

The disruptions continued as TAM, the nation's No. 1 airline, canceled dozens of flights to and from Congonhas -- the country's busiest airport -- causing a ripple effect nationwide that stranded thousands and sent tempers flaring.

TAM said it made the decision for passenger safety because of concerns about landing on a short backup runway at Congonhas in heavy rain that started Monday and was expected to last through yesterday.

The plane in July 17's fatal accident raced off Congonhas' 6,362-foot main runway, which is short by modern standards, before slamming into a gas station and an air-cargo building. Investigators are looking at excess speed, mechanical problems, and the runway as possible causes for the crash. Government officials have repeatedly denied the runway played a role.

The main runway has been closed while the crash is investigated, forcing airlines to use a 4,711-foot backup runway that further cuts the safety margin for takeoffs and landings.

TAM's main Brazilian competitor, Gol Linhas Aereas Inteligentes SA, recommended that travelers postpone flying until Monday.

"In this period, the company hopes to reestablish the normal flux of air traffic," Gol said.

Globo TV reported a British Airways flight bound for Sao Paulo was diverted to Rio de Janeiro because of increased use of Sao Paulo's international airport for domestic flights.

After the jet landed in Rio, passengers were kept on board for hours before being allowed to get off.

To reduce the delays and cancellations, Brazil's aviation authority has temporarily suspended all ticket sales for flights to and from Congonhas.

Of the 630 flights scheduled nationwide by late yesterday morning, a third were delayed for more than one hour and another 121 canceled, according to the airport authority.

On Tuesday, the same safety concerns led to 590 flight cancellations and 298 delays at Congonhas, according to Infraero, the national infrastructure agency.

The delays also prompted TAM's main Brazilian competitor, Gol Linhas Aereas Inteligentes SA, to recommend that its clients postpone flying until Monday.

Many passengers at Congonhas said they would try to wait out delays, but others gave up.

"This is a disgrace," said Marcelo Viera, a chemical-plant inspector who showed up five hours early for his flight to the northeastern city of Salvador and got stuck at the end of a line of 300 people.

Brazil's air-safety system "has been neglected for years, and it's going to take years to fix," he said.

Many critics blame da Silva's administration for failing to invest enough in airports while the number of flights and passengers has increased dramatically.