Campo de Marte (SBMT) is São Paulo’s first airport, Brazil’s busiest GA airport, and the country’s 10th busiest overall. Near subway lines and the city center, in a region once neglected but now growing more fashionable, the airport and especially the flight path have increasingly attracted the interest of real-estate developers. The governor of São Paulo has promised, or threatened, to close the airport, which has operated for 99 years, to fixed-wing operations by 2020. Essential for business, public safety, and medical emergency traffic, the airport has been seen as a future home for LABACE as well as a support base for UAM (urban air mobility).
The economic crisis of the last several years has depressed the airport’s movements, down to 75,280 in 2017, as both business traffic and pilot training have slipped. Public airport infrastructure Infraero, once a fairly laissez-faire landlord, has sought to increase revenue, which of course means increased costs for airport users. The Aeroclube de São Paulo, located at the airport since 1931 and the country’s oldest piloting school, recently had to return to Infraero two of the three hangars it occupied. In a recent visit to Gualter Helicopters, near the airport entrance, three of five buildings on the left were empty, and on the right, the 7,000-sq-m hangar constructed in 2012 by Global Aviation was returned to Infraero after Global was purchased by Icon Aviation, and will be used by the state police. Increased parking fees mean that the ramp formerly full of small private planes is now nearly empty.
The airport’s 1600 x 45 meter (5250 x 148 foot) asphalt runway has a published PCN of only 16, but testing by ABAG in January documented a PCN of 32, not yet published. The airport does not currently have published IFR approaches, but has in the past and efforts are underway to again certify the airport for IFR. The airport is integrated with the terminal ATC control, although it did have some flight restrictions during the 2016 Olympics to avoid interference with traffic for Guarulhos.
WHERE AND WHAT IS CAMPO DE MARTE?
Campo de Marte is located to the north of the city center, in what was once the floodplain of the Teitê River. To the north of the airstrip lies the Brazilian Air Force (FAB)’s PAMA logistics and maintenance center, which has hosted the Aeromarte aviation fair and has been considered an alternate site for LABACE, with an open, smooth ramp space larger than the cramped space LABACE uses at Congonhas. To the south of the airstrip is the terminal and the general aviation hangars, including the headquarters of Airbus Helicopters’ Brazilian subsidiary, Helibras. To the west is an Air Force hospital and an area that has been considered for a park including a home for TAM’s aviation museum. In the past, it has served to park Carnival floats after the parade at the “Sambódromo,” across the street to the south, which is part of the complex including the Anhembi Convention Center, the city’s largest.
As the city has grown to the southwest, the area around Campo de Marte has long been undervalued, serving as home to inconvenient uses. The Carandiru penitentiary was only a few blocks away until it was demolished. A shopping and convention center also in the flight path recently had to take extensive measures to mitigate methane infiltration as it was built over a garbage dump. The main bus terminal is nearby, sited there to remove bus traffic from more important parts of the city.
Once unfashionable, the region is now in the crosshairs of real-estate developers. In Brazil the poor live on the edge of town and those better off live close in. Campo de Marte is close-in and has grown more fashionable, with high-rises being constructed to the north but not to the east or west, because of the flight path.
For decades there have been attacks on the airport’s real estate, and they’ve always been repelled. But attacks on Campo de Marte are the result of the vast amount of money to be made by deactivating the approach ramps. Lots now suitable for row houses or low-rise commercial buildings would instantly become many times more valuable as sites for residential towers.
The effort is long-term and persistent. Airplanes are at least an order of magnitude less dangerous to residents than cars, but every aviation accident is magnified in the press. Every plan to build something new and trendy in São Paulo provokes a flurry of press releases suggesting that Campo de Marte is just the place, except that it requires deactivating the airport. A proposed Rio-SP high-speed train evoked suggestions of Campo de Marte as the train terminal: absurd, as the subways lines are close but not at the airfield, and vast space is not required. Currently, a “military high school” is being mooted, as such institutions are one of the newly elected president’s favorite solutions for the country’s ills. Even if true, there is no shortage of other possible locations.
THE MOMENT OF DANGER
The recession is finally easing, and although aviation still hasn’t recovered, new building construction is starting up, and there’s a need for sites. The dip in SBMT operations caused by the recession can be pointed to as a trend. In time, the recovery alone may bring numbers back up, and the new PCN and possible IFR approaches may bring larger aircraft. By-the-seat apps may make commercial operations practical for aircraft for which SBMT is suitable, to the Jacarepaguá airport in Rio, to the seashore, or to smaller upstate cities. Any or all of those events could increase the airport’s importance to city residents (rather than to those who live elsewhere and rely upon it). If UAM assumes the importance predicted for it, Campo de Marte as a support base could be unassailable.
Besides the airport’s current economic vulnerability, there’s political vulnerability with the election of a populist right-wing president, and a governor of the same tendencies who made new development in the region of Campo de Marte a campaign plank.
Additionally, he’s pushing to deactivate the airport for fixed-wing aircraft, but not for helicopters, thus halving the apparent harm to aviation. He’s also promised to maintain the runway—it can, he suggests, be repurposed for sports so there will be no waste. Newspaper reporters can see runways, but they can’t see a flight path. If the airfield is turned into a park it seems that public property will be preserved, since the press can’t see the public airspace being turned over to private interests. And of course it’s easy to count deaths caused by airplane accidents, but no one keeps statistics on children run over by the cars of a vast number of new apartment dwellers.
The airport was also shielded by its unclear ownership. It had been owned by the state until a civil war in 1932. The political motives in the secession attempt are complex, but the military result was clear: the federal government bombed the airfield and won the war. The city fought for ownership in court for over half a century, and although it won, the federal government appealed to the Supreme Court. The court battles have frozen the status quo, and the federal government is less easily wooed by local developers. But a final decision will come, and the governor when mayor negotiated agreement to make a park of part of the area that’s not essential to aviation. Not essential, but still a worrisome precedent.
The federal government has reportedly conditioned the closure of Campo de Marte on the state showing that there are viable alternatives to handle the air traffic. Proving that would hinge on what’s considered viable.
At the height of Brazil’s aviation boom, three or four new business airports were proposed as alternatives to Campo de Marte. Aerovale is moving towards completion but is on the other side of São José dos Campos, and its 1,550 x 30m runway is shorter than SBMT’s. The Catarina Executive Airport, now scheduled to be operational in the second half of 2019, with its runway at the full original planned length of 2,470 meters (8,104 feet), although the auxiliary runway dwindled to a taxiway and then disappeared from the plans. Two airports owned by the State of São Paulo, Sorocaba and Jundiaí, have received extensive investments over the past several years, with Jundiaí and another leading GA airport, Campo dos Amarais in Campinas, having their operation privatized to VoaSP, again with improvements being made and more promised.
The closest of these, in the best of traffic, would add 40 minutes to a trip from upstate São Paulo, effectively doubling the city center to city center time. That might make a business trip inviable, and in the case of a medical evacuation it might mean the trip could be made just as effectively, and far more cheaply, by hearse.
Cities the size of São Paulo, elsewhere in the world, have far more than three airports, and for good reason. Eliminating São Paulo’s only dedicated business aviation airport would be a devastating blow to inter-city connectivity, and might eliminate a vital part of any urban air mobility solution.