Jumpseat: The Brazilian Shuttle
It is not often that I am able to accept an invitation from a reader, but when 27-year-old First Officer Will Romualdo offered me a jumpseat view with Avianca Brazil, I could not refuse. For the last two months, I had been flying the daytime trip to São Paulo. The layover would afford me the opportunity not only to observe the operational intricacies of a non-U.S. airline but also to experience the Brazilian equivalent of the New York/Washington shuttle.
The Brazilian shuttle is between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro — a 40-minute flight. When I was new to the 777, I actually flew this trip with my airline. The flights were between the two international airports of Guarulhos and Galeão. The real shuttle is between São Paulo’s Congonhas Airport and Rio’s Santos Dumont Airport, both situated just to the south of their big brothers.
Here’s the fun part: Congonhas’ Runway 35L, positioned precariously in the middle of São Paulo’s densely populated area, is 6,300 feet long. Santos Dumont’s Runway 20L, positioned precariously in the middle of a peninsula surrounded by water and Brazil’s most scenic terrain, is 4,300 feet long. Did I mention the nonstandard widths of 148 feet and 138 feet, respectively? (Airline standard is 150 feet.)
The airplane of choice for this specific operation: an Airbus A319. At Santos Dumont Airport, Avianca utilizes a reduced thrust takeoff, which sounds contrary to logic, considering the short runway length. The reduced thrust actually allows for a greater gross weight. Why? Higher thrust would require more rudder control, which might not be available if an engine happened to quit on takeoff. Yeah, I know. I scratched my head on that one myself.
The other domestic airline, GOL, flies 737-800s into Santos Dumont. The airplanes are modified by Boeing for short-field performance. The modifications involve reductions in stopping distance.
I met Will for the first time face to face in the lobby of my layover hotel. Our initial introduction had only been through email exchanges and Skype. He is an affable and relaxed young man and, in some ways, is wise beyond his years. I made the mistake of putting his age in perspective; he hadn’t quite been born by the time I was hired by my airline.
Having spent six years in the States obtaining his FAA licenses and flight training experience, Will’s command of the English language is impeccable. As a matter of fact, you would find it difficult to believe he was born and raised in Brazil, rather than, say, Des Moines. The back of Will’s iPhone case is a statement of his affection for the United States. The case displays the stars and stripes.
Will deftly maneuvered through the notoriously chaotic São Paulo traffic, not batting an eye at the death-defying stunts of other drivers. As we approached the airport, he gestured at an area off the highway amid the sprawling disarray of the concrete metropolis jungle. At one time the area was a gas station. The gas station had been situated a few thousand feet from the departure end of Runway 35L. It was destroyed, along with the lives of passengers on board a landing TAM Airlines A320 that overran a very wet runway in July 2007. A memorial now stands in its place. The memorial serves as a reminder of just how fragile the relationship is between the benefits of the airport and the lives of the surrounding community.
Employee parking is almost nonexistent at Congonhas. Will parked at a Manhattan-style lot already jammed three cars deep. He surrendered his keys to the attendant. We walked atop a pedestrian bridge thriving with perpetual human traffic and across the road into the terminal. Will pointed at the video monitors that displayed departures and arrivals. A jammed screen indicated that a flight departed to Rio nearly every 15 minutes. With Carnival about to begin, airplanes would be full. Our flight would be no exception.
I got a quick tour of Operations, which was all that was required, considering its size. Will signed himself in for the trip using the technology of pen and paper on a pre-printed sheet. Attached to a clipboard, he showed me the schedule roster for the approximately 340 pilots at the base. I inquired as to the monthly bidding process. There was none. Trips were assigned. Didn’t that leave some pilots with less flight time than others and thus less pay? Yes. Wasn’t that, like … unfair? Yes, but it wasn’t anything that a few favors for the appropriate crew scheduler couldn’t fix. Interesting.