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Brazil yet to start work on most WCup airports

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SAO PAULO — Brazil has yet to begin upgrading most of its airports for the 2014 World Cup, although officials say the work will be completed on time for football's premier event.

Local authorities and tournament organizers have acknowledged that the airports' lack of capacity is one of the main concerns in Brazil's preparations and that significant improvements are needed to accommodate the expected 600,000 World Cup visitors.

A recent report by a government watchdog known as the Brazilian Audit Court warned that renovations in some airports may not be completed by 2014.

This week, the Estado de S. Paulo newspaper cited a recent report from a consulting firm particularly criticizing the state of the airports as part of an overall negative view on Brazil's infrastructure.

"We went decades without investing and that has meant that we've accumulated bottlenecks that are still reflected in the current state of our infrastructure," wrote Braulio Borges, chief economist with LCA Consultures, in the Estado.

Brazil's robust economic growth has resulted in increased demands on air and road travel, energy and the nation's infrastructure. Couple that with the World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics, and it could mean trouble if investments are not made soon.

"If we do nothing, adding these events with economic growth — which should be 5 percent a year — then a blackout is coming," Borges wrote.

Other experts have said aviation problems in Brazil stem from chronic under-spending on radars, runways and other infrastructure to meet increased demand. Safety upgrades, backup systems and even training for air traffic controllers have been delayed for years — despite the exponential growth in flights serving South America's biggest economy.

Brazil Sports Minister Orlando Silva, however, says that they are ramping up investments and that all will be in place come 2014.

"There is a timetable in place, so all the necessary work for the World Cup can be finalized on time," Silva said.

Brazil's airport authority, Infraero, is set to invest $3.1 billion to guarantee that the airports are ready before the World Cup, Silva said.

Infraero expects everything to be ready by December 2013, but work has begun only in airports in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Natal.

But improvements to the other 10 airports are yet to get underway. There are no projects scheduled in at least five of them, including the nation's capital, Brasilia. In four airports, the bidding processes haven't even been concluded.

"It shouldn't be a concern," said Brazilian aviation consultant Elias Gedeon. "It's actually better to take time in the planning stages. The construction stages usually don't take too long."

Gedeon said it is crucial the airports expand the passenger terminals to accommodate the increased number of visitors expected during the monthlong tournament. Infraero said the airports' capacity needs to increase from nearly 130 million passengers a year to about 165 million in 2014.

Air transportation will be key in Brazil as there will be 12 city venues spread across the nation, which is the fifth largest in the world. There are no passenger train lines in place and the roads linking host cities are in poor condition, making the airports crucial.

Infraero said in a statement to The Associated Press that its investment plan will "adapt" the airports to the demand of passengers expected for the World Cup. Infraero is responsible for funding the majority of the airport upgrades, along with the federal government. Nearly all investments will aimed at improving their passenger capacity.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva recently signed a document guaranteeing that the investments will take place and authorizing Brazil's civil aviation agency to accelerate work to upgrade the airports.

Aviation problems are not new to Brazil.

In 2007, a plane crash that killed 199 people, combined with radar failures and other problems, created an air chaos that prompted mass cancelations and delays lasting several days across Brazil. Several thousand passengers were stranded at airports and ticket-counter revolts were routine.

Last week, local passengers had to go through severe delays in airports across the country, mainly because of scheduling problems within a single carrier — Gol airlines — had affected hundreds of flights.