Canada crash prompts Portela warning

THE RECENT crash of an Air France plane in Canada has stirred debate about the alleged deficiencies of the runway at Lisbon’s Portela airport.

The French Airbus A340 burst into flames in the middle of a severe storm after touching down at Toronto airport recently. Canadian authorities are still investigating the circumstances surrounding the accident, from which all 309 passengers had a miraculous escape.

Plans have been afoot in Portugal since 1969 for a new international airport to alleviate traffic congestion at Portela. The government finally decided to settle on Ota, a site 50 kilometres north of Lisbon where work is expected to commence in three years’ time.

In the meantime, Lisbon air traffic arrives at Portela, an airport that some pilots say has a difficult landing procedure.

Most incoming and departing planes at Portela use a 3,800 metre slope and proceed from south to north, a manoeuvre that is usually performed in favourable conditions. But former TAP Portugal commander, José Alberto Monteiro, warns that, in the event of bad weather, the landing is performed in the opposite direction (north to south). “If something untoward happens, as was the case in Canada, an out of control plane would overshoot the runway and come very close to the nearby Segunda Circular (main Lisbon viaduct),” he says.

Monteiro, a pilot with 30 years’ flying experience, denies he is making unfavourable comparisons between Portela and the prospective airport at Ota, declaring that his sole concern is with Portela’s shortcomings. He also insists that his warnings are realistic, not just scaremongering, even though opinion among aviation experts is divided.

Carlos Morgadinho, from the Associação de Pilotos da Linha Aérea, Portugal’s association of airline pilots, disagrees with Monteiro and believes that extensive safety arrangements make Portela a secure airport. “The extension of the runway means planes can stop in good time before they reach the end. In an emergency, the pilot can calculate the distance necessary to land the plane and act accordingly,” he said.