Last week, the Brazilian government finally took the step of starting the privatization process for the country's airports, starting with São Paulo's Guarulhos, Campinas, and Brasília. Rio will likely come next, as well as Belo Horizonte and Manaus. Because of the growing economy and burgeoning middle class, airports across Brazil are bursting at the seams: demand for air travel grew 194 percent in the last decade and 16 percent last year, with over 107 million passengers in Brazilian airports in 2011. Guarulhos and Galeão, two of the largest airports in the country, are among the worst, and the government hopes to improve airports across Brazil before the World Cup and Olympics. But the reality is that the airports need to be upgraded right away to handle the skyrocketing number of Brazilian travelers, as well as an influx of foreign business travelers and tourists.
São Paulo is a case in point. Brazil's biggest city has an international airport that was rated the worst airport in Latin America for business travelers, given "long lines and inefficiencies." A Brazilian grad student at the University of Manchester dedicated his dissertation to a case study on Guarulhos, examining its problems and possible solutions. In it, he identifies seven big issues: "existing safety and security procedures; lack of political will from the airport administrator to implement the solutions; inefficiencies in different elements of the process; existing physical infrastructure and lack of flexibility; necessity of stakeholders cultural change; conflicting stakeholders interest; and existing procurement legislation." I would soon experience most of these.
Photo: David Gacs
The first thing I noticed when I flew in to São Paulo last week was that we had to disembark right onto the tarmac and take a bus to the terminal. I've flown in to Guarulhos before from abroad and from within Brazil to make connections and don't remember this happening. But this time, it happened for every flight, both domestic and international flights. I wasn't sure why they couldn't just get a jetway, especially for the larger international flights. The buses were ok, but they slowed things down, especially when we were running late for a connection on the way back to New York. I figured it would be okay though, since we didn't have to check in. I was wrong.
When we got to the international departures entrance, my heart nearly stopped. There were hundreds of people in line, which snaked around four times before stretching back down the hallway.
After waiting in line for twenty minutes or so, slightly feverish with anxiety, the clock ticked to the exact time our flight was supposed to start boarding. Finally, at the advice of a guy at the information desk, we got out of line and went to speak to the lady checking tickets in front of the immigration area. "No, no, you can't come in here. Sorry," she said, after we explained our flight was boarding. "Talk to that guy." She pointed to a TAM employee, who was studiously switching back and forth between a walkie-talkie and a cell phone. We hurried over. He acknowledged our presence, but refused to put down his two devices, and continued switching between them while occasionally holding up a finger in our direction to recognize that he realized we very much wanted to speak to him. This went on for a few minutes, at which point I was literally squirming with impatience. He shot me a half-annoyed, half-bemused look before putting down his phones.
"Do you speak Portuguese?" was his first question. English was a nonstarter, apparently - gringos be damned. He then proceeded to explain that a guy would take us and other passengers from our flight over to another terminal, which would theoretically be faster, and then we would go back to the other terminal to board our flight. He did not seem concerned that our flight was supposed to leave in less than an hour. Soon, other passengers began gathering, and a group of maybe twenty people began following the guy appointed to march us to the other terminal. On the way, I overheard him telling another employee that there were only five federal police working at the original terminal, which was part of the reason for the horrendous line. I didn't find out why this was, or what the real number of agents that should have been working. One time when I was leaving Rio, a strike caused some pretty bad lines going through immigration, but it was nothing in comparison to this one.
The pack leader walked pretty fast, with mostly Brazilians in tow. We snaked through a strange back corridor with only airline employees idling in the narrow doorways, some of whom I nearly crashed into as we swept through. It was a decent walk, and I couldn't tell if we lost people along the way. When we got to the terminal entrance, the guy checking tickets said, "Miss? You can't come in this way." I pointed to the leader. "He said we could!" I proclaimed, and off we went. As it turned out, we were in for more lines. The Brazilian line at immigration was long and very slow. The foreigner line was shorter, but also painfully slow; there only seemed to be one agent for the line. When I finally got through, I was a little overheated; there didn't seem to be functioning air conditioning in the room. The female agent also seemed to have noticed, and she had stripped down to a white tank top as she stamped passports. After feverishly rushing through security, we were home free! Or so I thought. The pack leader was idling at the security exit. "Yeah, just go back to the other terminal now," he told us. "Is everything going to be ok?" I asked, stupidly. He was unfazed. "Yup. Just head over there." This strange scheme did not seem to be out of the ordinary. I wondered how often they did this passenger relay game.
We then discovered just how far we were from the other terminal, and the fact that our flight was just about to leave, we started to run. By the time we got to the gate, I was huffing and puffing and covered in sweat. Though the flight should have been taking off, to our dismay, our gate was marked Buenos Aires. Where the hell was our gate? We asked around and determined that yes, that tiny area in the basement was in fact our gate, and mercifully, our flight was delayed. If it hadn't been, we likely would have missed it.
We hurried back downstairs and miraculously, our flight was now on the board and people were lined up to get on the bus. It turns out they had switched the gate at the last minute and made all of the passengers run (literally run, according to an older woman in line) to the new gate. At this point I was shiny with sweat, my hair was in disarray, and I'd discovered a large sunburned patch on my arm from wandering around in the sun earlier in the day. Needless to say, I was picked for the extra security check.
When we finally sat down in our seats, I was never so grateful to be in the uncomfortable sardine can that is the very back of coach for a ten hour flight. I wondered how many other Guarulhos passengers felt the same.