Air transport group critical of airports

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Brazil's overburdened airports cannot meet demand and are a "growing disaster" that could embarrass the country during the upcoming Olympic Games and World Cup if they aren't improved, the head of the world's top airline association said.

The language used by Giovanni Bisignani, CEO of the International Air Transport Association, to describe Brazil's overwhelmed airports at an industry conference Thursday was some of the harshest criticism yet leveled at the nation on the topic.

"Brazil is Latin America's largest and fastest growing economy but air transport infrastructure is a growing disaster," he told industry leaders at a meeting of the Latin American and Caribbean Air Transport Association in Panama. The organization represents 230 airlines around the world.

"To avoid a national embarrassment, Brazil needs bigger and better facilities for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympics," Bisignani said. "But I don't see progress and the clock is ticking. The time for debate is over."

Brazil's robust economic growth has resulted in increased demands on air travel. Thirteen of the country's 20 largest domestic airports cannot accommodate existing demand, and the situation is critical in Sao Paulo, South America's biggest international hub, Bisignani said.

The rapid growth has resulted in regular and massive delays for air travelers in Brazil.

Experts have said aviation problems stem from chronic underspending on radar, runways and other infrastructure. Safety upgrades, backup systems and even training for air traffic controllers have been put off for years.

Bisignani's comments were pointed, but he isn't the first one to voice concern.

The International Olympic Committee has expressed doubt about the country's ability to upgrade airports ahead of the Games. Earlier this year, Rio 2016 committee president Carlos Arthur Nuzman said the IOC's principal concern was the apparent lack of planning to revamp airports.

Committee spokeswoman Elaine Correia acknowledged improvements are essential but said that the committee trusts the government will fulfill on time the promises it made in Rio's candidacy bid.

Brazilian business leaders have also sought the government's assurance that delays in these important infrastructure projects would not harm the country's image abroad.

Government officials, on the other hand, have repeatedly sought to calm anxieties over the country's preparedness.

Brazilian Defense Minister Nelson Jobim told the privately run Agencia Estado news agency on Friday that Bisignani's comments were vastly overblown and made without real knowledge of the situation.

There are problems in Sao Paulo's airport, but construction in one terminal is almost over, and a new one is being built, Jobim said from the capital, Brasilia.

"These matters are being attended to," Jobim said.

Infraero, the government agency that oversees airport infrastructure, is part of the Defense Ministry.

Rio is a sound tourist destination and already hosts approximately 3 million foreign visitors a year. The World Cup is expected to increase tourism by 5 percent and the 2016 Olympic Games by 10 percent, but according to Brazil's tourism board, Embratur, the country will invest an estimated $14.4 billion in Rio over the next five years to handle the flow.

Most of that money -- 72 percent -- will be used to bolster infrastructure, including roads, airports, hotels and sports venues.

Sports Minister Orlando Silva has pointed out that Infraero is set to invest $3.1 billion to guarantee that the airports in particular are ready before the World Cup. He has also sent observers to South Africa, which hosted the World Cup last year, to take note of how that country dealt with similar shortfalls.

In an interview with The Associated Press in June, Silva acknowledged the country isn't "at full speed" when it comes to transportation facilities but said that improving airports was a top priority.