Jumpseat: The Brazilian Shuttle

A glimpse into one of the busiest flight corridors in the world.

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.

On average, a copilot for Avianca Brazil earns $3,500 (U.S.) per month, while a captain earns $7,000 (U.S.). It is a respectable salary in Brazil. That being said, in my experience dining out on layovers, I have not been able to find many bargains. Living in São Paulo is not cheap. Apparently, Azul Airlines, one of Avianca’s competitors, pays half the above amount for copilots. Interestingly enough, Azul was founded by Brazilian-born David Neeleman, former CEO of JetBlue.

Once our outbound airplane arrived and the passengers deplaned, I was introduced to the captain. He is a grinning, instantly likable 40-something-year-old kid. And, I would find out later, he knew how to fly an airplane. Capt. Rodrigo Davi treated me like royalty, offering his seat in Avianca Brazil’s newest A319. I graciously accepted.

Once seated, Will proceeded with an attempt at teaching me the nuances of programming the FMC. I was grateful for his patience. Route entry was a manual-entry procedure. Uploading did not exist. And although ACARS was functional for automatic reporting of out/off/on/in events, among others, the old-fashioned method was still utilized. The copilot recorded them on a form.

With the turnaround process proceeding at the airline’s typical furious pace — about 20 minutes — I offered Capt. Davi back his rightful position. I sat down in the center jumpseat and started to familiarize myself with the rest of a surprisingly spacious cockpit. Will and Rodrigo began their before-takeoff checklist with a cadence that was familiar, despite the frequent exchange of Portuguese. For my benefit, they interjected English. I expressed my appreciation for the effort but compelled them to speak in their native tongue if an emergency were to occur. They chuckled at that.

Just prior to departure, one of the airline’s flight attendants traveling in civilian attire as a nonrevenue passenger presented herself to the captain. Pleasantries and the customary Brazilian cheek kisses were exchanged. Apparently, all cabin seats were occupied. Rodrigo offered her the remaining jumpseat. Although it’s forbidden in the United States to offer nonpilots a seat in the cockpit, it’s not an issue in Brazil. I was told tongue-in-cheek that the only terrorist threat to an airline cockpit was from the government.

Within a few minutes, we pushed back from the gate. As was normal at Avianca, the pilot performing the takeoff taxied the airplane. It was Will’s takeoff, but it would not be his landing in Rio. Due to the short runway length, Santos Dumont was a captain-only arrival.

With Will at the controls, we rocketed skyward into the murky gloom of the afternoon sky. As we pierced a billowing, smoky-gray cumulus cloud below 10,000 feet, I glanced at the captain’s PFD. Indicated airspeed was 340 knots — cool. Getting there faster meant beating the competition.

Rodrigo resumed control at cruise altitude. For my scenic-tour benefit, a visual approach into Rio was requested — and denied. Neither Will nor Rodrigo sang the praises of Brazil’s all-military air traffic controllers. Despite the requirement to continue the tedious STAR, I was able to enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the area.

The approach and landing onto Runway 20L were nothing less than spectacular. Without breaking a sweat, Rodrigo rolled the Airbus on as if it was a big 172. We had almost 2,000 feet to spare. He deserved a pat on the back for the performance. I cannot do it justice with this column.

Not to be outdone by the landing, the departure was eye-watering. Prior to the takeoff roll, Rodrigo maneuvered the airplane such that the tail was over the threshold that sloped into the lapping water. We blasted forward directly toward the iconic Sugarloaf Mountain, which dictated an immediate left turn once airborne. No postcard could fully capture the scene.

Will resumed control and completed the approach and landing back into Congonhas, a professionally uneventful arrival. I silently chuckled at how 6,300 feet of concrete squeezed into urban sprawl now seemed like a space shuttle runway.

With the airplane safely parked at the jet bridge, gender-appropriate handshakes, cheek kisses and hugs were exchanged. I thanked all involved for their hospitality. Photos were taken. I was later given a tour of the new Avianca Brazil administration building, a reflection of the airline’s success.

Maybe some of my colleagues who fly the New York/Washington shuttle would consider an exchange for a day. But I’m going to bet … probably not.

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