SAO PAULO (AP) — Before they see their teams battle on the fields, soccer fans arriving in Brazil will first have to fight their way past airport scaffolding, terminal flooding and two-hour taxi lines.
The World Cup opens Thursday, June 12 and airports are bracing to welcome the crush of international travelers flying in for soccer’s premier event. Brazilian authorities insist they’re ready, but passengers may find themselves in for a rough landing.
For example, officials had nearly seven years to prepare Brazil’s largest airport, Sao Paulo’s Guarulhos, yet only a quarter of the new $1.3 billion international terminal is operational. Many weary travelers will deplane into a dim terminal with severe concrete architecture dating from the military dictatorship of three decades ago.
On Monday June 9, the wait time for a taxi at Guarulhos was more than two hours and nearby traffic was at a standstill due to a crippling strike by subway workers.
“Let’s just put it this way: We are not showing the world the best we could,” said Luiz Gustavo Fraxino, an airport infrastructure consultant in Curitiba, one of the cities hosting World Cup games.
Experts blame poor planning and excessive government control for the airport problems. A long-delayed privatization drive began too late for most upgrades to be ready.
President Dilma Rousseff has dismissed complaints that Brazil isn’t ready. The overstrained infrastructure, she says, is a sign of a nation on the move, as the middle class expands and previously poor Brazilians take to the air for the first time.
“We aren’t building airports just for the World Cup, just for FIFA,” she recently said. “We are building for Brazilians.”
For most travel in Brazil, flying is the only practical choice. The country is the size of a continent and there are no passenger rail connections, not even for the 260-mile (418-kilometer) stretch between its two largest cities, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. To top it off, resources were stretched thin because Brazil insisted on preparing 12 cities to host the games, rather than the eight preferred by FIFA. Last week, even Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes acknowledged that decision was a mistake.
In general, comforts common to other airports, like power outlets or functional Wi-Fi, are difficult to come by. Travelers who lack Portuguese skills may have a hard time understanding local authorities, airport announcements or signage.
There can be more serious problems, too. A consumer protection agency audit at Rio’s airport earlier this year found irregularities such as blocked emergency exits, out-of-date fire extinguishers and plugged-up urinals.
Alex Lima, a safety officer on offshore oil platforms, said Rio’s airport is stretched to the max even when there’s not a major international event taking place.
“I’m here twice a month for work, so I’m immune to all the craziness,” Lima said as he waited for a flight to Sao Paulo. “But for people who’ve never been here before and are used to ‘normal’ airports, this has to be pretty shocking.”
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